Lately, everywhere I go, everything I read, emphasizes the importance of storytelling. It shows up in articles and blogs I read online. It even shows up at a data conference I attended in a session on visualizing data and using it to tell a story for stakeholders. Dashboards used to be the buzzword; now storytelling is on the rise. Headlines encouraging you to tell your story, share your story, tell the story.
The question is whether storytelling as a concept, as a tool, is truly on the rise or if I’m just more attuned to it.
It’s more likely that I am experiencing the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, the experience of encountering a new concept or thing everywhere after you learn about it. I could call it by its more prosaic name of “frequency illusion,” but I think Baader-Meinhof is jazzier.
Storytelling. I used to think of stories and the telling of them as something for children. It certainly wasn’t something adults do (we call that “blogging” or marketing if you’re in business). Stories are something we outgrow as we move from board books to novels with longer, more complicated plots. Stories are instructive, tools for molding behavior and character.
Ever since the spring and our two Listen to Your Mother productions, I’ve been thinking a lot about stories and storytelling. It’s likely because we had two cast members this year who work with stories, their structure, their form, their history, and their power. And I began to see our production as an important part of the storytelling process, giving our local readers – adults all – an opportunity to share their stories, to have the audience learn from them, and to learn from each other. I found myself learning lessons from each one: the futility of control, respecting myself as worth a place at the table, learning from our children, flipping roles with our parents. I learned from them and internalized those lessons as I hope Daniel learns from the stories we read him.
It turns out that storytelling isn’t so childish after all. One of the most profound books I read this year was Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. In it, Newitz explore prior extinction events (spoiler alert: there have been many); the rise of humans; and finally, what we might face in the future. The “Remember” part of the title refers to storytelling and how it is not merely something fun to do around the fire or at a party but is in fact a powerful survival tactic and evolutionary development. As Newitz writes, “Over the past million years, humans bred themselves to be the ultimate survivors, capable of both exploring the world and adapting to it by sharing stories about what we found there.”
It could be that one small group of H. sapiens developed a genetic mutation that led to experiments with cultural expression. Then, the capacity to do it spread via mating between groups because storytelling and symbolic thought were invaluable survival skills for a species that regularly encountered unfamiliar environments. Using language and stories, one group could explain to another how to hunt the local animals and which plants were safe to eat.
…people could figure out how to adapt to a place before arriving there—just by hearing stories from their comrades. Symbolic thought is what allowed us to thrive in environments far from warm, coastal Africa, where we began. It was the perfect evolutionary development for a species whose body propelled us easily into new places. Indeed, one might argue that the farther we wandered, the more we evolved our skills as storytellers.
Storytelling saved lives and may have even assisted in our evolution. I can’t think of many things more powerful than that.
Speaking of stories, this week the videos from the 30+ 2014 Listen to Your Mother shows became available on YouTube. Here’s the link to the main LTYM channel with all the shows. And here’s the link to the Raleigh-Durham videos. And because I’m not above a little shameless self-promotion, here’s the link to MY reading ;-)
I promise that you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll learn. Enjoy.