“Storytelling is not what I do for a living – it is how I do all that I do while I am living.”
Donald Davis, Storyteller and Author
Life throws at us a never-ending stream of challenges and opportunities. Much of our success and happiness depends on how we greet them. This is illustrated in a quote from Ashleigh Bright, “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.” Or this one from Howard Norberg, “Life is a cement trampoline.” Both are clever but as Voltaire once said, “A witty saying proves nothing.” There is also the fact that how we view and address life matters most.
Our lives are incredibly complex and require life-long, daily problem-solving. Stories help us because they document prior experience and future potential. By reading or hearing the stories of others, we find the strength and insight to help address our own problems and pursue new opportunities. This has never been more true than in our times. Maarten Schäfer noted the reason why, “In this time of ‘information overload’, people do not need more information. They want a story they can relate to.”
Great stories are unquestionably most valuable when they lead us to real decisions. Stories help us make sense of who we are and the world in which we live. They propel and aid us through life. They do so much for us.
Stories help us find a mate, become craftsmen, spurn adventure, convince us of a point-of-view, and challenge us to connect through empathy. They are a basic, yet rich, building block of human interaction and societal construction. And they are incredible problem-solvers.
Frame the Opportunity
Stories set context. They frame the opportunity and problem. This provides the weight and importance to situations we may confront. It tells us that what we encounter is not unique in the context of human history but may be unique to us. This provides comfort without robbing the situation of the magnitude of the lesson it will provide.
Establish a Thesis
Each story sets out with programmed familiarity. This is a thesis we can identify with and hope to see resolved or cleverly disputed. This comfort draws us in and suggests that there are patterns to the world we can take advantage of.
Introduce Key Variables
A thesis will draw us in and hold our interest but the variables will invariably change. Stories avoid predictability because those variables, and how we view them, change. This is the most instructive aspect of storytelling and problem-solving. Namely, things change. It is a metaphor for our life.
Stories are conjectural in nature. They advance theoretical propositions about cause and effect and about change. Of course, these are based on documented history but no story can be entirely predictive so they force us to examine the options each situation creates. Each of us react based on our experiences and biases to a story. In that sense it becomes highly personal, almost indescribable or as Hannah Arendt noted, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Throughout history preceding generations have encountered the same issues we now confront but in different forms. Yet, there is no prescriptive playbook even with all this time, activity and documentation. So storytelling promotes an ongoing inventiveness or as Theresa Fowler highlighted, “The history of storytelling isn’t one of simply entertaining the masses but of also advising, instructing, challenging the status quo.”
Suggest a Conclusion
Each time a story is told, the fundamental elements including plot, setting, characters, conflict, and resolution are subtly rearranged. We do this primarily based on the audience. Most of the time our audience is ourselves. This forces us to exercise caution and objectivity even when dealing with our most personal problems. Obvious or prescriptive solutions lead us in the worst direction and deliver unintended results.
Storytelling remains one of the best ways of exploring possible futures and their implications. They
identify the gaps in our knowledge and understanding. They force us to eliminate errors and improve the tale. And they beg more questions and that is the best way to learn. Ben Okri builds on this notion, “The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.”
Storytelling works because it acknowledges a problem exists. It provides perspective on the problem and shows unique and different ways to solve it. Stories take us on a journey where problem-solving is an embedded process.
Pundits suggest that the best stories are easy to retell. That is too simple. We retell stories because we retain the lesson and that is because we find value in the story. In that sense, storytelling is problem-solving. In telling a story, we attempt to resolve a problem by casting an entertaining and informative light on it. Yet, it must lead to a firm decision, a change in behaviour or as Karen Armstrong affirms, “Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories.”