Few things engage us as powerfully as a good story. Whether we hear it told, read it in a book, sung in a song, or see it on film or stage, a good story can touch us deeply. A well-told story often closes the door on the outside world and allows us to lose all track of time. A well-told story can disarm our emotional security system—so much so that we let down our guard and laugh, cry, and even get angry. A well-told story can strip away the carefully constructed veneer we present to the outside world and force us to face who and what we truly are. Stories possess enormous power.
Most important, stories offer us a way to make meaning. Stories provide the connective tissue between the disparate events of our lives and enable us to make some sense of our days and discern a thread of purpose. When we tell a story about ourselves, we make an effort to tie seemingly disconnected and random events together in such a way that all the parts and pieces amount to something. We do this because we want our lives to matter. We don’t want our allotted days on this earth to be, as the poet said, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
In that light, leaders and pastors have to pay attention not just to the stories our clients and parishioners tell but also how they tell them. The way people tell their stories reveals a lot about them and who they are. How the storyteller frames a story tells a lot about her or him.
For example, is the storyteller a hero or victim? None of us is exempt from the tendency to use our stories to put ourselves in the best light possible. As well, we are also prone to shape our stories to assert that something was not our fault. One of the hardest tasks any leader faces is getting a client or an organization to tell their story as honestly as possible. Listening for the role the storyteller plays in her or his story will often reveal the gap between perception and reality.
Pronouns also tell a great deal about the storyteller. When the storyteller employs the pronouns “I” or “we” the storyteller is revealing something about his or her identity and involvement. These first person pronouns communicate agreement and ownership: “This is my/our story.” Meanwhile, the pronouns “they” or “them” create distance and often disclose some measure of disagreement. These pronouns mark the storyteller as an outsider. Smart leaders pay attention to pronouns and how they’re used, recognizing that they are a strong indicator of where the storyteller stands in relation to events and circumstances.
Stories in which clichés or trite sayings figure prominently often suggest that the storyteller hasn’t probed an experience fully, is avoiding facing some hard truth, or is in a hurry to get on with life. As storytellers we are often in too much of a hurry to make sense of something. We jump to quick conclusions, unaware that our first take on something may be entirely wrong. Or, an experience may be so painful that we take refuge in soothing explanations even though those explanations may be wholly inadequate. When a leader hears a story soaked in easy explanations, the leader has to probe gently by asking questions that force the storyteller to dig a little deeper.
These are but a few examples of the way a storyteller tells the story can be quite revealing. That’s why it’s important for leaders in all contexts to pay attention to how storytellers frame their narratives. Listening intently to the way the stories are narrated can provide vital clues as to how accurate the story is, how much the teller owns the story, and whether or not the storyteller has mined events to truly make sense of them. Paying attention to how the storyteller tells the story makes it possible for the leader to help the storyteller reframe the story and tell it differently. The leader’s role is to prod the storyteller to tell the story from a slightly different angle so that it’s truer and more meaningful.