Storytelling and the Power of Reflection

Personal storytelling consists of recounting events that have occurred in the past, describing the state of the world as it is today, or offering up our theory as to how the future may look.

As storytellers our narratives include a combination of external actions and events, as well as your internal thoughts or feelings. An audience rarely wants to hear a continuous string of facts which sounds like a news article. They want to connect to the storyteller and they want to understand what the story meant to them. They need the Pathos (emotion) in addition to the Logos (logic), and this is the power of reflection in storytelling.

It goes beyond what you saw, or heard, or read. It’s about your interpretation of events, how it made you feel, how it changed you. It can also examine an alternate storyline. What if you (or someone else) had said something differently, or reacted differently. The what if can be powerful, as the audience is given the opportunity to ask themselves, what if.

In a 2004 article on Transom.org, This American Life creator Ira Glass states his view that reflection is critical to radio storytelling.

“I usually think of a radio story (the kind of story we do on This American Life, anyway) as having two basic parts to it. There’s the plot, where someone goes through some experience. And then there are moments of reflection, where this person (or another character in the story, or the narrator) says something interesting about what’s happened.”

For some folks reflection comes naturally. They want listeners to know how they felt, or what they thought, or what they believe to be true. But for many people the process is not so easy. They lean toward reporting the facts and refrain from sharing their innermost thoughts. Sometimes it’s an issue of vulnerability, digging into feelings they are not comfortable sharing in public, but often times it’s about the common tendency to stay on the surface when telling a story, or believing their view would not be interesting to an audience.

Joan Didion is one of my favorite writers for many reasons (more on that in a future post), but one is her prowess when it comes to reflection. Much of Joan’s writing is about her views of people and events, as well as herself, and the nature of being human. It’s a style of writing that requires pausing, examining, digesting, and sometimes a long look in the mirror.

I was reminded of this trait while re-reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays that largely describe her experiences while in California during the societal upheaval of the 1960s. In one of those essays, On Keeping a Notebook, she reflects on the fact that we’re not the person we seem to be in the moment, but rather a collection of all the versions we’ve been over time. We frequently upgrade our operating system, for better or worse.

While the following line is her own reflection, one cannot but follow suit and think about the relationship that we have with our past selves.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem

When I first read that line I stopped and put the book down to ponder my own paradox with past revisions of myself. Which personifications was I happy with and maintained a healthy relationship with, and which were best forgotten. The ones that, according to Joan, I should at least recognize for their contribution.

After that single sentence she could have moved on to the next topic, but her reflection went much deeper, diving into the consequences of not following a nodding approach.

“Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surpass us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. or a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we are.”

As you write your personal story, look for those moments when your thoughts, opinions or conclusions, your musings or insights can add depth and emotion to the narrative. Were you changed in the process? Can the audience connect to your story in a way that changes them?

Is Climate Change the Most Important Story of the 21st Century?

There will be many world-changing stories throughout the 21st century. Artificial intelligence and genome science are two that will alter the very nature of how humans exist and interact. But it may well be the story of climate change that is the most important of them all, as it’s a story which describes how the nature of our entire planet will be changed in ways that make it much less hospitable to life itself.

It’s difficult to find a metaphor that properly parallels climate change, but there’s one I often use that’s close. Like a car traveling at 100 mph towards a brick wall, when you apply the breaks, and how hard you push on the brake pedal, will determine the outcome. Too little, too late is not an approach that works well in this scenario.

Some say the wall doesn’t exist, others see the wall yet feel we still have plenty of time to react. I’m in the group who believes that no matter how hard we brake, a collision of some sort is inevitable. We have long since passed the point at which a safe stop can be executed. (I truly hope that I’m wrong in my thinking, but many trends are going in the wrong direction)

Hands Earth Climate Change Protection

How that story ultimately plays out is dependent upon all of us, but I have my doubts that the story will have a happy ending without honest and committed leadership. On that front, many leaders have chosen to ignore reality, but others are making heroic efforts to create a different outcome, one that turns the CO2 tide and ensures a vibrant future for humanity.

At the 2016 TED Conference, one of these heros took the stage to tell her story of challenge and of hope on the topic of climate change. Having served as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres understood the topic well, having played a pivotal leadership role leading up to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

In her TED Talk, Christiana observes that perspectives and mindsets need to shift if we are to address the critical issues that climate change represents, and uses the shift from failure at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to the success achieved six years later in Paris to illustrate what can happen when decisions are based on a shared vision of the future instead of protecting one’s own turf.

As inspiring as Christiana’s talk was, it left me wanting to know more about her background, passion and motivation. That’s often an issue with developing a short presentation – this was under 15 minutes – as there’s only so much information that can be included. The fact that she worked on the Paris agreement lends credence to her qualifications as a speaker, but I knew there was so much more to the story and was therefore left a bit unsatisfied.

Which is why The TED Interview Podcast is so brilliant. Debuting in 2018, the format allows Chris Anderson an opportunity to get behind the interviewee’s talk as a way to understand more of the speaker’s background, their motivation, and how their talk is playing out in the months or years since.

After you’ve had a chance to watch Christiana’s TED Talk, pour yourself another cup of coffee and listen to the podcast interview. You’ll gain a much better understanding of who she is, why she ended up in such a critical position, and how her desire for a sustainable world continues to feed her passion.

And here’s the challenge: Were there parts of the interview that you felt should have been included in her TED Talk? If so, what parts of the TED Talk would you have pulled out, assuming the length had to be the same? You will face the same issue when trying to determine what events, feelings and insights you want to put into your narrative, and which ones to leave out. Narrative impact will vary greatly based on this selection.

While creating your story blocks you will need to determine how long each one is, and which ones to leave in the final version. If you’re creating multiple versions – 15 minute short talk vs. 45 minute keynote – those decisions will be different, as will also be the case when addressing different audiences. Before speaking, understand who is listening.

TED Countdown Project

p.s. For those of you interested in being part of the climate change solution, check out TED’s bold initiative – Countdown – that is bringing the world’s foremost experts and thought leaders to the table as a way to create impactful solutions while also encouraging grass roots, community-based movements to support the goal of environmental stability.

The Emotional Side of Storytelling

Personal storytelling is all about sharing and understanding. The sharing of your experiences, views, insights, opinions, perspectives and wisdom, in the hopes that your audience – in front of people and/or by way of video or audio production – will gain a newfound understanding of the important topic at the center of your story, as well as better knowing you, the speaker.

In order to achieve this enhanced level of understanding, and to foster positive change as a result, there are two questions that I always pose to a speaker as they develop their story:

1) What will the audience think?

2) How will the audience feel?

The thinking part is a mixture of information and logic – the facts that you offer to support your message, and the way in which those facts are arranged. (more on this in a future post)

The feeling part is about the emotional reaction(s) that your audience will have, both during and after your presentation. In most cases a great talk will create feelings of being inspired, empowered and hopeful. Despite the negative aspects and implications that you may reveal during your speech, as problems are rarely upbeat in nature, you also include a proposed solution that invites the audience to participate, thus offering the vision of a brighter future.

For example, a story about traveling to Mars in a spaceship may evoke feelings of excitement, as well as fear, pride and hope, while a talk about overcoming the challenges you faced in order to become a successful entrepreneur may evoke feelings of connection and empathy, as well as inspiration and determination.

Without an emotional reaction to your message,
an audience will simply become apathetic.

Listed below are examples of how an audience might feel during or after hearing your story. It is by no means comprehensive – it’s up to you to determine the emotions that you want to convey in your story – so feel free to add to this collection as you see fit.

Feeling wiserFeeling smarterFeeling depressed
Feeling lovedFeeling hopefulFeeling challenged
Feeling proudFeeling inspiredFeeling recognized
Feeling happyFeeling reverentFeeling empathetic
Feeling fearfulFeeling powerfulFeeling entertained
Feeling scaredFeeling liberatedFeeling determined
Feeling excitedFeeling validatedFeeling understood
Feeling humbleFeeling awestruckFeeling empowered
Feeling curiousFeeling connectedFeeling enlightened

As you draft each Story Block while working on your manuscript, think about the emotion you want the audience to feel during each point in the story. While recognizing the importance of word choice, do the words/phrases/sentences as written properly represent those feelings?

And when you enter the presentation phase and begin rehearsing, make sure your voice also matches the intended emotion. This is where vocal variation can really shine in its ability to bring your words to life. Record yourself, then play it back and listen to the tone, volume and inflection of your voice. If you’re rehearsing in front of friends or family, ask them if the emotions in your voice match the intent of your words. They’ll usually hear any mismatches.

Storytelling Emotions CollageEmotional Reaction Photos by Robin Higgins at Pixabay