The Power Within a Single Story

It’s never too late to acknowledge the fact that you are your own storyteller.

Last fall, I spoke at the TedX Conference at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. I spoke about the power that lives within a good story. Numerous people have asked me to share my transcript, which I have included below. It speaks to the power all of us have to tell our own stories and how these personal tales can change the world.

I have a story to tell …

You may not believe it. You may not want to hear it. But I have to tell you.

I want you to know that all human memory is based in stories. Stories affect the way we live work, think, and relate to each other. We create meaning through the stories we tell and the stories we hear.

In his book, Tell Me a Story, Roger Shank concluded that “human memory is story-based.” This is a profoundly startling conclusion for a society that tends to think that the answer to every problem is more data.

The importance of storytelling in human learning — and hence also the importance of oral histories — has been demonstrated in projects where computers are programmed to create stories. Human beings store a large amount of information in story format. This information is not verbal, but situational. Schank concludes “human memory is story-based.” This is a profoundly startling conclusion for a society that tends to think that the answer to every problem is more data.

Stories, then, according to the research in artificial intelligence, are fundamental to how people learn and organize what they know. This relationship between stories and learning is largely unrecognized.

It is up to us to embrace and acknowledge these facts. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all called to be storytellers and listeners of stories. Stories define what it means to be a human being. It’s what it means to be a member of society.

This is the source of our power as individuals and as a community. This is how we will grow, evolve, and prosper.

There is real science behind the power of storytelling.

In his article about the science of storytelling, Leo Widrich points out:

“When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them, too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize. Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.”

People hardly read books anymore. It’s a fact that technology is changing the way we access stories. Stories now come in the form of blogs, viral videos, text messages, and tweets.

Stories are now being told through two-words blips, memes, and personal diaries that are posted online or sent out every few seconds through images and messaging technology.

Technology has allowed us to tell stories with greater immediacy, impact, and volume.

These don’t seem like real stories, but they are — just take a look.

These are all stories. And their power is not diminished by their length, quality, or content.

Did you know that stories mean big business?

In Significant Objects, a literary, anthropological experiment on eBay, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively.

To prove their point, the pair bought items on eBay that contained traditional product descriptions. Once purchased, these items were re-sold on eBay.

But of running item descriptions, short stories were written for each item. More than 200 professional writers provided these stories. Objects that were originally purchased for $1.25 apiece were resold on average for $36.12, amounting to a grand total of $8,000. These proceeds were then distributed to the contributors as well as nonprofit creative writing organizations.

That’s compelling.

Stories shape who we are as people and professionals.

I coach a lot of young people on how to present themselves in their new or transitioning career. We talk about the elevator pitch, a condensed version of our professional profile and career goals.

Have you ever heard of it? In the sales world, the concept of the elevator pitch is built around the premise of running into a key prospect on an elevator. You have only about 30 seconds to grab their attention and interest regarding your product or service. The elevator pitch analogy is used to help sales people define their value proposition in a clear and concise manner.

Experts encourage us to write down our elevator pitch in a paragraph or two, and practice saying it aloud. There is even some cool technology out there to help you get up your courage and confidence.

This is how you build a story about yourself.

As you craft your personal, professional pitch, you must answer the following questions:

  • What is your profession and expertise? It is important to briefly describe what it is you do without going into excruciating detail.
  • Who is your market? In very short order, you will need to state who you are working with, as well as what industry you are working in. It is also important to state the size of the market in which you work.
  • What makes you different and better? Simply being in an industry with successful competitors is not enough. You need to effectively communicate how you are different and why you are better than the competition. A stronger network? Key partners? Proprietary technology? Industry expertise?
  • Where do you want to go and what do you want to be doing?
  • How might you be able to help the person you are talking to right now?
  • How might the person you are talking to right now help you?

We are the creators and keepers of our own story.

I often wonder, who the hell do I think I am to think that I can write or tell my own story?

I talk to other people about writing. I tell them that the act of writing is at once the most empowering, creative experience and the darkest emptiness I’ve ever felt. I call this writing in the void.

I never know if what I write will be accepted, embraced, thrown in the trash, or — worse — never read.

But still, I tell my stories.

When I started writing in high school, I did it for myself as a cathartic exercise for my teen angst. I never planned on publishing anything I wrote.

But at some point, as a writer, you have to ask yourself, “Am I just writing to get things out, or do I have something more to say? Something that someone else might find meaningful or useful or important?”

I dabbled in poetry and short stories for a while. And then came 2009 — the Great Recession.

Like many, my company closed and I lost my job.

I had crushing credit card debt, a mortgage, and a wife and four kids who wondered what was going to happen next.

I was searching — searching for a reason for all of this disaster and confusion and pain.

I wondered, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I wondered about my own story: “How could it all have gone so wrong?”

It was right around this same time that I tripped upon an old legend that had been floating around Detroit for more than 300 years. It was a legend of a red dwarf — the Nain Rouge — that appeared as a harbinger of doom, just before bad things happened. People had actually seen this creature. There were documented sightings throughout history.

I began to do more research. I found bits and pieces of folklore, facts, and fiction. But there was no story. I thought this was a great opportunity to create a new story based upon an old legend.

The Nain Rouge became the icon for all of the bad things that had been happening to my friends, my neighbors, and me. All the bad in the region and the country now had a face and a voice. Evil was now embodied by this little devil.

Now, with this new story, I had an explanation of why bad things happen to good people.

But I had much more, too. I had created a folk tale that encapsulated the spirit of the people in this region. The spirit of hope and grit and perseverance. The spirit that says to keep fighting even when you’re down and out. The spirit of community and caring for each other. The fighting spirit that says that evil will always be around us, so what the hell are we going to do about it?

The story was no longer mine. It belonged to everybody.

Now this story is being made into a film and is part of book trilogy. So more people will see it and hear it and be able to internalize its universal themes.

The power of storytelling is an expanding force. It’s a flame that can be passed on to many others, ever increasing without losing anything of itself.

As I come to the end, I leave you with this:

You have a story to tell.

You are writing your own story everyday with every encounter and every interaction, whether you want to or not.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your life. It’s never too late to acknowledge the fact that you are your own storyteller.

Your story is important.

Your story has meaning

Your story needs to be shared.

Tell your story.