If you want to have an impact on people, you need to tell them a story. For years, I read articles in the American Bar Association publication ABA Journal on trial practice and the importance of advocates telling their client’s story to the jury. But recently, the importance of telling a good story has come up in other contexts as well.
As a writer, of course, I expect to hear about story. Two of my recent examples do come from writers talking about writing. But as an attorney, a mediator, and an HR Director, I have seen the importance of letting people tell their stories to get to a good result.
Have a Story to Tell
Last week on the blog, Write It Sideways, guest contributor Jennifer Blanchard of InkyBites.com listed five things writers can learn from Taylor Swift – an unusual example for a writer to use to talk about story. The first point Ms. Blanchard makes is “Have a story to tell.” Writers need to find their inspiration in what happens to them and to those they know.
Most of my stories – both fiction and essays – have at their heart one or more experiences that have happened in my family or that friends have told me about their families. Even in the historical fiction I write, I base many of the incidents that happen to my characters on what early pioneers wrote about their experiences. Real life gives rise to stories.
Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone needs to tell that story. The people who walked into my office when I was practicing law or resolving employee complaints needed to spill their stories to feel heard. The parties in the cases I now mediate have to hear each other’s story to build common ground to reach a resolution. In all these situations, people accept decisions better if they have had the opportunity to tell their tales.
Let the Moral Come Through in the Telling
The second piece I read about story this last week concerned how to write about the moral of your narrative. Not only do people need to tell their stories, they also need to figure out the lessons learned in those stories. But people need to get to the moral of the story by themselves for it to be meaningful – they don’t want to be preached at.
Richard Ridley wrote a column on the CreateSpace blog last week, in which he listed his three rules for writing. His first rule is to “Forget the moral of the story.” He says his writing became liberated when he just let the characters be themselves. Then the moral of the story developed without effort.
I, too, have found that my characters learn their own lessons as they move along the path I put them on. The magic of telling their story is in letting it happen, and just editing out the uninteresting parts.
After all, isn’t that what we do in real life? We muddle along our paths, learning lessons as we go. Sometimes we learn easily, sometimes we have to be bludgeoned by experience. Unfortunately, we can’t edit out the trips to the grocery store and doing the laundry, as writers do with their characters.
You Control Your Story
The two articles about writing mentioned above made an impact on me, but didn’t surprise me. However, my third encounter with the power of story was unexpected – it came from a post on leadership by Scott Elbin, a leadership coach, on the Next Level Blog. Mr. Elbin says that leaders’ “soft power” (as opposed to “hard power” – the hard resources at their disposal) is dependent on how compelling their story is – and leaders have control over how they tell their story. In other words, a leader’s influence depends on the stories they tell – to themselves and to their followers.
When we exercise control over our stories, we exercise control over our lives. If we tell ourselves we are victims, then we are. If we tell ourselves we can fulfill our dreams, then we can.
Think about these examples of the power of story the next time you need to persuade yourself or someone else. Do you permit yourself and those around you to tell stories? Do you let the moral of the story come through? Do you control the stories you and others tell?
Your story is all around you. You choose the parts to tell and the parts to leave out. Only you can shape your story.