The Power of Storytelling: From Understanding Ideas to Indwelling Them

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The first speech Janet Yellen gave as chair of the Federal Reserve Board was to a group of organizations working in urban neighborhoods. The speeches of Fed chairs often center on economic principles and forecasts, but Yellen spoke about unemployment.

She told the stories of three unemployed Americans she had personally interviewed. Such stories, she says in The New Yorker, “serve a very valuable role in making something that would seem abstract and general very down to earth.”

She is correct: stories create the bridge from the abstract to the practical.

Abraham Lincoln occupied the presidency at a time of political turmoil, warfare, and when questions of supreme importance for the nation’s future were at stake. He is remembered for speeches of extraordinary prose, but he should also be remembered for being a storyteller. “Lincoln possessed an extraordinary ability,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin notes in Team of Rivals, “to convey practical wisdom in the form of humorous tales his listeners could remember and repeat.”

Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) ends with a voice-over. It could have been: “We cannot live apart from relationships because we need their benefits.” That would have been an entirely accurate—but forgettable—way to conclude the movie. What we hear instead is: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would but I need the eggs.’ Well I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”

Lincoln and Allen recognized that stories make ideas so memorable they can prompt even busy people to stop, take notice, and have ongoing reflection and conversation.

The nonprofit I direct knows that if our Board is to faithfully accomplish its necessary business, its meetings cannot be “all business.” Just moving efficiently through an agenda of essential tasks—evaluation, planning, budget, policy—does not complete our task as a Board of Directors. We also need to regularly review and reflect on our first principles about cultural discernment so that everyone in the organization doesn’t just know them but own and live them.

Doing that means we need to creatively plan for unhurried conversation about them so that they’ll not just be bullet points to equip the mind but also a narrative to fire the imagination. We’ve found we’re better prepared for the business that must transpire by these discussions, and as an added benefit the spouses of directors often attend (at their own expense) for the rich times of discussion we have about ideas, culture, faith, and life.

If the first principles by which we operate are true, they will fit with life and reality in ordinary ways, and exploring those ways allows us a glimpse of how they help us lean against the brokenness of the world. This process, all good storytellers know, permits something so wonderful to occur that it can feel almost magical at the time: the ordinary and the routine begin to take on the possibility of the extraordinary. Steven Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, author of Visions of Vocation, and a member of the Ransom Fellowship Board, helps us imagine how to live out our first principles. How? He tells us stories of ordinary people who seek to be discerning in their vocation so that their bottom line embraces not just profit, but human flourishing.

It is relatively easy to be knowledgeable of our first principles. Repeat them enough times, and our people will be able to repeat them. But we want more than that. We want all of us to so indwell our first principles that when we find ourselves in novel situations, we can face them creatively.

Imagine mature, experienced actors on stage when something untoward occurs—they should be able to improvise without jettisoning the script. They will act in character, at that moment, as the script would tell them to if the script included that situation. They would act fittingly out of the first principles that have become a narrative in which they play a part.

Stories do more than enliven a presentation. They allow people to understand ideas, adopt them as their own, and indwell them. It is in that ability to indwell that we see great ideas start to take hold and for transformation to begin. And this is essential if the workplace is to be a place of true human flourishing.


The Power of Storytelling

A note from our managing editor: When my children were young, telling stories at bedtime was always one the best parts of our day. I usually read stories straight from a book. But, my husband made up stories to tell the children and those stories continue to show up in conversations, even now that our children are adults. Stories are powerful, and we may tend to forget that as we grow up and move on into board rooms and classrooms and carpool lanes.

What can a story provide in a board meeting that facts and figures alone can't accomplish? How has storytelling improved relationships among coworkers, especially coworkers whose faith is different from mine? What are some of the best stories ever told in the workplace, and why did it make a difference? Why is it important to be able to tell a good story and what is a good story anyway? In this series at The High Calling, we take a look at The Power of Storytelling in the workplace. Pull up a chair and join us in the conversation.

Featured image by Nicolas Raymond. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.