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.
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.