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A fellow poster on a chat service had a very important problem that he was asking for help solving.  His son, an adult, is developmentally disabled and the programs that the family has come to rely on to create for him something like a normal life were being slashed.  When this poster tried to explain the situation to officials and others who might help, their eyes glazed over and they lost interest.  What can he do?

The answer was a simple one:  he had to learn how to tell a story.  He had to make the people listening want to care and get involved.

Facts and logic are never enough in a situation like this because people have to connect.  It may seem ridiculous that the care of a vulnerable person comes down to a skill akin to being a big hit at parties, at least in what we think is a rational world.  Yet that is exactly what people have to do in order to speak with a clear voice above the noise of all the many problems of the world.

The simple skill of telling a story is at the root of what we might call a common culture.  Without a common framework for telling stories and making easy connections, many small problems start to fester into bigger ones.  We can’t run our world with the kind of mechanical precision that we expect from a society of experts for the simple reason that they can’t expect everything that might be a problem to cross their radar.  When stories are left untold, problems are left unsolved.  Those that are told have to compete with so many stories out there coming from people that might be easily misunderstood.  How can anyone make sense of all of them?

That is why the basic human need to make connections on a personal level means that storytelling is essential to everything that we might call our “standard of living”.

We live in a time when storytelling itself has often been left to “experts” of one variety or another.  Entertainment comes to us from large corporations who have movies, books, or perhaps important “infotainment” that they carefully package up to sell to us.  Smaller stories have to be made into larger parables before they can be delivered into this stream, their meanings often twisted or aggrandized in strange ways that might miss the real point.  If the stories come from a very different life than the passive viewers are used to, the simple act of setting the stage to make a connection might drown the story in details.  Common culture, a shorthand that has to be at the root of any useful soundbite, is always the first victim.

The situation is never hopeless, of course.  The internet has made it possible for people to tell their stories to audiences that they may not have had access to otherwise.  The stories still have to cross lines of sub-culture and roll on top of a lot of noise, but they can make it.  What is critical to getting this done is skill, the simple art of telling a story.  It’s not that different than what might pass between strangers in a bar, what was done around a campfire in ancient times, or what might sum up a life in a good eulogy.  But it is a skill that we all have to learn if we are going to make this thing we call the internet into a useful antidote to the bizarre cult of celebrity that media megalomania has created.

It is the first step in creating a common culture with a quick shorthand for delivering stories.  These make connections that allow an otherwise specialized world to run properly.

That is what my internet writing guide is all about.  I hope that I have generated a few tools that will help people be better storytellers.  What is less important is the work itself, the body of “expert opinion”, than the sparks of discussion that it might generate.  Have I crafted the last word in how to tell a story on the internet?  I sincerely doubt it.  What I want to give people is not only the tools that might make them better storytellers, I want them to understand that they can and probably have to learn how to tell their stories well.  If my guide gets that process started, it is successful.

How important is it to tell a story well?  What skills might I have left out?  I’d love to know what you think because that is the point of any of this.  I know of at least one person who found the need very important, but I’m sure you have many other examples.  Please, tell me your stories.

12 thoughts on “Storytelling

  1. Without this ‘malfunctioning bureaucracy’ (as you called it on that other forum) in the first place, none of this would be an issue. So the real question is ‘how is this system malfunctioning’? Some will argue that the State should not get so involved with personal lives that these personal lives cannot survive w/o the State, while others will argue that the State should be there for each and every downtrodden person in the Country.

    I don’t think we have the skills or money to be the savior for every single individual in the Country. Just my $.02. I may be wrong.

  2. The example you gave is probably not the best one because it goes right to politics. But I do think that people need to understand just how others are having trouble coping if we are going to get a handle on the best way to solve things. That may be government or it may not be. But you are right that we rarely seem to hear about many problems until they become big enough to make the media.

    I think this is a good step back from what you have been saying about a world defined by experts to a more people-centered view of what has gone wrong. I hope that we can see it as a critical issue in the fractured world we live in.

  3. Good criticism. I hate it when a story gets lost in the details, and I’m afraid that could easily happen here.

    What I didn’t get into is that the person with the problem could have easily solved it by turning his adult son over to be a ward of the state – the cuts in question would not have affected them nearly as badly. The net expense to the state would have been higher had they not taken personal responsibility for their own son and remained his legal guardian. A different program, left uncut, would have taken up the slack – at greater overall cost to all of us.

    Those are just details, however. What mystifies me is how the simple stories of people are lost in the statistics – numbers which are manipulatable and always open to interpretation. We’re not a species that understands our world entirely through cold numbers.

    Janine, you’re right that I need more specific examples. To me, it’s not a matter of getting government to do this or that, it’s a matter of getting to know the problem. Captn Tony, it’s not a matter of whether government should solve everything or not, it’s a matter of knowing just what the problem is so that we can decide, intelligently, how we can best solve it – which may or may not involve government.

    There are always stories of real people that slip through the cracks. Real social change comes when those stories are told and connections are made. If people want to get together and solve those problems outside of government, all the better – but they have to hear the stories first.

  4. Welll (as Uncle Ronnie used to say) my story is: I was a juror on the famous trial involving a Toyota going 90 MPH off an exit ramp. The family parked at the stoplight suffered three deaths and 2 lives severely injured by head trauma and multiple broken legs. The other family whose vehicle was going 90 suffered no injuries whatsoever. Although that family suffered then and still is today.
    Anyways what I take away (in a good sense) from Eric is that some of governement acts as an insurance policy. I bus disabled people all day and I enjoy the job as I need to be outdoors. Every week you learn something new, the nature of blindness, the nature of anxiety, all about dialysis, everything. In a cold calculating sense these buffers we provide probably enable society to run more effeciently and effectively. Many of my people would literally be stranded, isolated and alone as they have few or busy relatives. Just doing my part and concentrating on the road. And by God the potholes are atrocious you wouldn’t know how bad until you drive an old bigger rig.

  5. I love a good story and I know there are many out there that I have not heard. I always wonder how some stories ‘make it’ in the media and others do not. The ones that I like to hear are usually about people who do something great despite all the odds against them but we rarely seem to hear those.

  6. I really appreciate your approach to this. New tech means new skills and new obligations. You don’t have to read anything more than the comments at the PiPress or Strib to see that something has gone totally wrong with what people think is the right way to get their point across. I really do like what you are trying to do to engage people who have stories to tell but get lost in ‘the noise’. Thanks!

  7. wabbitoid, I don’t mind hearing stories and finding out about individuals that are falling through the cracks. But what I hear so very little about are the success stories. The lack of these storytellers is deafening.

    I too have my stories to tell, many aren’t heart wrenching but instead deal with family and some sacrifices. I tend not to tell these stories because they happen to others each and every day I’m sure. I appreciate the services that the State offered my family. In fact, both my father and I have written letters explaining our sincere gratitude to those providing the services. At the same time, we could have made it w/o these services (and often did just because we could). My grandmother always told me how lucky she was because her parents never had the help she was given.

    Just remember that there are stories of success out there too. That a system is not necessarily defined just by the few that aren’t served as they’d hope, but also by those that appreciate their experiences. Seek out balance, don’t be afraid to say ‘thank you’ as we are often too quick to point out failure and affix blame.

  8. Tony, Dale:

    I think that stories of people succeeding, especially against long odds, are always going to be popular. That’s only natural because people like sucess and the sucessful. I’m focusing on the stories about problems because I’m trying to tie this back to something that still bothers me.

    Remember that many business leaders, economists, and government officials continue to insist the obviously incorrect position that no one saw this Depression coming. They seem to think that this is a reasonable position, too, as if there is no way to predict when things are going to go bad.

    In a highly specialized world where people have blinders on (as noted by Adam Smith), how do we increase communication across the various specialties and classes?

    I do believe that the lack of a common culture, which is to say a shorthand where everyone understands each other easily, is a root problem for many of the difficulties we have today. I tend to take the more liberal view that common culture has to be inclusive and adaptable, which makes creating and keeping such a thing a lot more difficult. But I’m sure that it starts with people being able to communicate across any divisions that crop up, and that means they have skills to tell their stories properly – and people want to listen to them.

    I’m actually trying to make a high degree of specialization palatable … it’s a bit of a change, I realize!

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