A few months ago, a diverse group of minds (visual designers, journalists, curators, architects, and clowns) gathered in a historic map store in San Francisco’s North Beach to have a DIALOGUE on the topic of Storytelling. We set out to understand how the stories that we tell are really an extension of what we believe. How does the intention we set for ourselves come alive?
In keeping with the tradition of our posts, Jason Hanasik reflects on the recent evening...
On Storytelling // Jason Hanasik
In fourth grade, my class was shuttled into the library, asked to take a seat in a small arc around a pile of bedazzled pillows and told that our guest of honor would be joining us shortly. In previous trips to the library, the Mayor had read to us and the students were all abuzz wondering who today's featured guest might be? Who had the honor of sitting on such a plush throne? Who was willing to come down to our level as opposed to sitting in a chair like the Mayor had?
Five minutes after we had formed our semicircle, our teacher moved from behind us to a few steps behind the pile of pillows and said, "Class, today's guest is extra special. She's a Storyteller.”
As I was meditating on an evening investigating “Storytelling” for Rimma’s series, DIALOGUE, I found myself back in 1990, sitting in an arc in the library watching a woman perform stories for a group of captivated youngsters.
The differences between the Storyteller and the Mayor were subtle and they helped me see a few of the defining characteristics of a Storyteller as opposed to someone who recites a story. The Storyteller kept our gaze the entire time (or averted their gaze upwards or downwards where appropriate). She was able to keep our gaze because she didn’t need to read the story, she had already memorized it. But it didn’t feel as if she was performing it as much as it felt as if she was a vessel channeling the story. The Storyteller impregnated each word with an emotion which seemed not only appropriate and compelling but also deepened my experience of the story and forwarded what the tale was trying to tell.
The Mayor, on the other hand, would catch our eyes every few sentences as her gaze danced between the words on the page. She stumbled across the words forcing me to parse out and reconstruct the misplaced inflections and smooth out the sudden stops and starts of what felt like an initial read through.
To be clear, the difference isn’t just in memorization but embodying, being aware of, and having a sense of purpose in telling that specific tale to that specific audience. I don’t remember feeling anything (other than being star struck) when the Mayor finished her story and we lined up for lunch. But a few weeks later, when the Storyteller finished, I do remember feeling different and somehow changed as I chewed on the story she told. I can’t say it changed my life, but it left a mark.
Rimma and I started the DIALOGUE on Storytelling with a simple question, “What’s at stake for you in the stories you tell?” As one might imagine, the responses were inspiring, imaginative, surprising, and emotional but none of the responses were read from a notecard. As each person finished their answer to the initial question, we saw a group of strangers settle into a new space, a new group and in a few situations, settle into a new sense of themselves. Stories are incredibly powerful. We are not only the stories we tell ourselves but also the stories we tell others.
So, when you’re about to tell a story (or when you catch yourself retelling a story you no longer want to tell) ask yourself, “What’s at stake here?” The answer may surprise you and you may move from being someone / a brand who is reading from someone else’s book to a person / brand writing and telling a story they wrote and actually want to hear.