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Guide on the Side - Storytelling: Wake Up Sleeping Beauty

By Marie Wallace, Published on March 1, 2002

"Historians, lawyers, physicians, economists and psychologists have all rediscovered the power of stories to frame reality and storytelling has come to rival logic as a way to understand legal cases, geography, illness or wars" Lynn Smith wrote in the L.A. Times on November 11, 2001.

Her professional list could have included many more, especially speakers, who use stories to illuminate their messages long before and after slides became the vogue. On the other hand, occasional presenters are often reluctant to incorporate stories into their formal presentations or their reports, proposals, briefings, training and meetings.

Humans are born storytellers, arriving on the planet hard-wired for narratives. Plus in their early years, their environments are rich with storytelling. Children absorb a sweep of stories from nursery rhymes to fairy tales to religious stories to family anecdotes. Between nature and nurture, a veritable sleeping beauty of stories waits to be awakened in us all.

Your "inner editor" may admonish you to stick to the facts like Joe Friday in the movie and TV series, Dragnet. Better that you remember how all the witnesses defaulted to storytelling mode. The scriptwriters weren't tacking on a theatrical gimmick. Peoples' realities are framed by narration or stories. This is how minds work. Trial lawyers know this and make liberal use of storytelling to sway juries. Sometimes their stories are reduced to a one-liner "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit."

Here is a five step plan to find your story voice and wake up your sleeping beauty.

1. Leap and the net will appear

Start turning personal experiences into stories for your presentations. (Experiences don't automatically equal stories. How you tell them does.) Sharing personal stories means sharing meaning and privacy. This is the leap and the more you leap the bigger the net grows. After you become comfortable sharing personal stories, begin to include your observations of other people's behavior and then move on to paraphrasing and adapting fables, parables, fairy tales, literature and urban legends. This network of narratives will weave your net and form what one storyteller calls "your sacred bundle."

Example: "When I began school I was the single student in the first grade in a one room country school with eight grades. I felt very isolated in the only grade with just one. I didn't belong to a group. All the other kids knew the playground games and no one picked me for their team. At the end of the year, the teacher promoted me to the third grade. I thought this was just another new thing to learn but when school started again in the fall, I sensed a difference. I "belonged" in a grade with six others. Now there seemed to be others to help me and before long, WOW!!, I hit my first home run.

This story illustrates the universal need for a sense of community and can be used in presentations to connect emotionally with an audience and capture a truth. Teams are stronger than individuals. Stories can also be conveyed using songs, book titles or proverbs. "As Mary Poppins would say of this topic, "A bit of story makes the message go down.'"

2.  Collect stories from a variety of sources

In the real world, literature and the media stories abound. You may want to start a notebook or database to improve your access to those you like. When you know a good story, sooner or later you will find a way to weave it into a presentation. This is the reverse of "leap and the net will appear." It's more like "build it and they will come."

Example: Three of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories (Sneetches, What Was I Afraid Of? and the Zax) are from the book Sneetches and other Stories. They involve universal behaviors: envy, fear and stubbornness. I used to keep Sneetches at my desk and read from the stories to bring humor into tense situations with attorneys. No one thought it odd for the firm librarian to be reading from a children's book. "Pale green pants with nobody inside them" became my mantra for dealing with tense lawyers.

3. Learn the characteristics of a good story

            It is told well

            Plot involves a transformation

            Storyteller is sincere

            Story fits the occasion

            Characters come alive

            Story is appropriate to the audience

            Yarn relates to the issues at hand

            Story has some basic aspect of the human condition

            It moves the audience beyond the moment

Example:  "My first Christmas party as a private law librarian turned into a morality play.  Attorneys and staff gathered for lunch at the historic Biltmore Hotel.  The party was scheduled for 12:30 but by the time we all gathered it was after 1:00 p.m. and the festivities began with drinks--not food as anticipated. Prompted by rumbles from my stomach, my eyes focused on the tables set up for lunch in the adjacent room where at each setting there was a big French roll.  I stifled an impulse to grab one immediately and instead accepted the drink offered.  One sip on my empty stomach and I could feel the drink pulsing through my veins to my brain.  Not good! I slipped the drink behind a plant. Soon a partner asked if I would like another drink.  I was still fixated on the French rolls in the adjacent room and replied passionately  "No thanks, what I would really like is a French roll." There was a startled pause.  "French roll!  "French roll!" he exclaimed  "And we were looking to our librarian to set the moral tone for this party."

I have incorporated this story many times in speeches to illustrate many aspects a  librarian's role in a law firm.

4.  Observe how professional presenters use stories.  Bob Berring is a fine example and known to many LLRX readers. He is a professor, law librarian, writer and scholar as well as contemporary bard. Bob uses stories, especially personal ones, in all his presentations and many of his publications. (If you don't know Bob, meet him at A Review of Berring's Legal Research for the 21st Century or run a Google search.)  Bob views the world as one big "storyscape" personifying the Wordsworth line "find a tale in everything."  When you hear him speak, observe his use of stories for humor and to

            Clarify and illustrate meaning

            Make points memorable

            Bridge cultural gaps

            Identify with the particular audience

            Persuade the audience to his point of view

            Encourage thinking

            Inspire people to act

            Build a shared vision

            Relieve tension

            Raise the energy level of the group

            Introduce controversial issues

Example:  Bob can attend a conference lasting several days, encompassing a variety of events, activities and presentations, and at the end, summarize the conference as a story. All the storytelling elements are there: setting, mood, caste of characters, dialogue, plot, action, resolution and message:  "If you don't do it, who will?"

5.  Broaden your horizons about storytelling

Make the acquaintance of a professional storyteller

Attend a storytelling event such as: National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee 

A local tellabration (storytelling concert) held throughout the world the third week in November

Visit some of these sites, articles and books:

August House Folktale & Story Catalog  (publisher's catalog)

The Art of Storytelling by Nancy Mellon

Corporate Legends & Lore:  The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool by Peg C. Neuhauser

Delivering Your Presentation:  Telling stories by Rebecca Ganzel

Improving your Storytelling:  Beyond the Basics for All who Tell Stories in Work or Play by Doug Lipman

National Storytelling Network  

The Power of Personal Storytelling:  Spinning Tales to Connect with Others by Jack Maguire

The Storyteller's Guide:  Storytellers Share Advice for the Classroom, Boardroom, Showroom, Podium, Pulpit and Center Stage by Bill Mooney and David Holt

The Springboard:  How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations by Stephen Denning

The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer