You’ve probably heard about the importance of storytelling for engaging and being relatable to listeners. In the world of marketing, storytelling is the popular kid right now—he’s got the attention of all the cheerleaders, and for good reason.
However… here’s the big misunderstanding: That it’s only about the story as a finished product.
In other words, I believe it’s a mistake to think, “I just need to figure out my story and get it out there so that X, Y, and Z will happen” and pursue this goal only with the end in mind.
The problem with this approach is that words are cheap. Anyone can craft a narrative, memorize it, and deliver it to a group of people with the intent to get something out of doing so. However, not everyone will resonate with a storyteller that is purely goal-oriented. A storyteller in this mindset has too much riding on that moment to make something happen later as a result—in other words, they’re future-oriented and not present.
Audiences can sense when a speaker isn’t really with them while delivering a story. A storyteller who is trapped in their own head ends up reading from a script that only they can see. In other words, their attention is elsewhere. These storytellers are missing out on the full lessons available in crafting a story because they believe a story is separate from (and more important than) the human beingness through which it emerges.
This separation between story and self is all too common. Our culture still prioritizes our mind as if it’s the most important distinct part of a person (got brain science?). Yet we forget to acknowledge that in moments of communication, we’re sharing with others not just our ideas, but our very being. When we tell a story, what’s being communicated is not just the conflict, climax, and resolution. What we communicate may be heard, but our story is primarily felt on multiple levels by those listening.
Are you thinking body language? Good, let’s go there. I’m not a proponent of mimicking body language techniques with the intention to prove to the audience that I believe in what I’m saying. I believe true confidence comes from a different place.
Among new storytellers, you may notice the desire to find any way possible—be it clever phrases or power postures—to make sure they’re wearing the costume called confidence. Well, I can totally relate. My first impulse used to be grabbing for anything I could that promised to stabilize my flinching nerves. After all, I wanted to look good.
Now, of course my body language does matter to me. But instead of posing, I can actually display powerful body language that’s genuine. Such as engaging in a body-oriented practice like weight lifting or yoga so that those confident legs I’m supposed to have, are naturally holding me upright without the need to strike a pose.
Story Preparation as a Transformative Practice
Months leading up to a speaking event for a crowd of 170 people, I committed to a daily yoga practice. I didn’t want the appearance of being more comfortable in my skin, I wanted a practice that would help me make that feeling real. A practice that would allow me to stay present to the sensations in my body without making them wrong—including butterflies in my belly.
What I want to highlight here is the importance of story preparation as a transformative practice—becoming the kind of storyteller you can see in your imagination (not mimicking others, but rather strengthening your own qualities). This requires both time and patience. You know: the wax on, wax off stuff.
In my own process of crafting stories, or coaching others to uncover their own, I know the feeling of tapping into something deeper leading up to the actual telling of a story. Instead of rushing towards that finish line, there are lessons being learned all along the way. And we gain from those lessons when we’re willing to self-reflect and be with our discomfort.
Lessons might include exploring a theme that reminds us about who we really are and always have been. Or being more able to handle the emotionally rich anticipation of sharing ourselves more vulnerably. Or how we change in coming to the decision to go through with such sharing—all of which is happening before the main event of the story being told in public.
The director/co-writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, Pete Docter, struggled for months to understand the core of that story. He eventually had his eureka moment while walking among redwoods and captured his realization on video to share with his team. Through his wrestling with the story, he became aware that his relationships (his wife, kids, and friends) are the most important thing to him and that emotions are the key to those relationships.
In Pete’s words: “The people that (I) feel most deeply connected with are those who I’ve cried with, been pissed off at, experienced fear with—it’s all the aspects of emotions that bond us together. Maybe joy, as much as we all want it in our lives, is not the answer. The answer is actually sadness.”
Now at that moment in time, before the film was even part way complete, he had inspired his team by tapping into his own inspiration. Pete had also changed and grown as a human being. If we stripped away all the success of that film, his growth still remains. This is what I mean by the transformative power of preparing a story, before the story is even shared publicly.
It’s less about the telling of the story and more about what leads up to that telling.
My business partner, Ryan Rigoli, considered sharing a very personal story about what happened to him 20 minutes before a very important meeting with the founder of a conference. This story was about letting go of being perfect. In other words, the more attached he was to the outcome of that meeting, the more he suffered. This lesson had already been learned, but now, as he anticipated telling the story in public, he was getting a deeper version of that lesson—in this case, as an imperfect storyteller.
Before the public sharing, Ryan’s practices included being kind towards the part of him that wanted to keep rehearsing (in order to “get it right”). He realized that there’s no “right” way to tell a story. It was a story about himself and all he had to do was know the key turning points and retell it in the words that would appear. Ryan released himself from much of the burden of being perfect as a storyteller. The real power of his story was not in the rehearsing, it was in the practices that would allow him to be more present with himself and the audience when telling it.
For most of us, a good portion of the preparatory work is about letting go. Letting go of being perfect. Letting go of what we think will and should happen once our story is out there. Meanwhile, holding this letting go alongside our desire to share our story and have a meaningful effect on others by doing so.
That theme of letting go is certainly true to my own experience. In 2011, I self-published a graphic novel—my first book. Getting to a finished product that others paid money for was a real dream come true for me. And while the launch was a success and the book was welcomed, the real growth for me occurred while I struggled with the creative process. I learned about my own addiction to wanting fame (i.e. letting go of being seen by everyone—a core lesson in that book) and made enough peace with that part of me in order to keep going and finish the project with humility. That self-understanding remains with me, regardless of what happened when my book was being crowdfunded or made it into people’s hands.
Before the idea for that book came to me, I recall saying to a coach of mine, “I want to write and illustrate a story, but I feel like I don’t have anything important to say.” As time passed, I was given opportunities to confront what was behind that statement: namely, my frozen emotions…
“What do you mean? I don’t feel anything. Why do you ask?”
Over time, I developed an ability to be more honest with myself and others. Inner journeys like these create storytellers—those willing to tap into the depth in themselves and share that with others.
Sharing One’s Self without Pushing a Lesson or Action onto Others
After all, storytelling at it’s root is a tale that impresses upon us an insight about how to navigate our own lives. To share one’s self without pushing a lesson or action onto others, the storyteller must access their authenticity and humility (BTW, I’m in favor of calls to action that feel like invitations rather than obligations). Doing so in the process of crafting the story more naturally evokes a similar depth at a later moment of public sharing.
A former client recently asked me if I thought I had a TED talk in my future. Two years earlier, I would have said “yes” with a sort of nervous confidence born more from a fear of never doing so. This time, I admitted differently.
I said something to the effect of, “I have no idea. When I’m ready, I believe an opportunity like that will appear. Not because I pulled favors to get to the stage, but because I’ve become the kind of person that a stage deserves. Because I’ll have a kind of unattached desire to share my story that allows it to happen naturally. Because I’ll be able to prepare myself knowing that the stage is but one later chapter in my growth. Of course, I may have to still act in some way to initiate the possibility, but I imagine it feeling more like the stage coming closer to me as I move closer to it.”
If you’ve been thinking that you just need to uncover your story and get it out there, it’s not my intention to give you the appearance of a longer road ahead. It’s my intention to invite you to savor the all-too-clever cliche of focusing on the journey leading up to the sharing of your story as the time when the greatest gifts will come to you. The same gifts that will serve you well when it comes time to let the public read or hear the story you have to share.
PS: Want to hear Ryan’s story as well as some ideas about choosing your own? Listen to his interview with Kimberly Errigo (he tells his story at 26:56): https://soundcloud.com/kimberly-errigo/resonance-the-invisible-hand-of-marketing-with-ryan-rigoli