Storytelling at Work
June 30, 2020


I remember, as a small child, playing a game called "Connect the Dots." In front of me was an activities book composed of sheets of paper with nothing on them but numbered dots. My task was a simple one -- to draw lines between the dots, connecting each dot sequentially. #1 would get connected to #2. #2 would get connected to #3 and so on until each of the dots were connected, resulting in the creation of some kind of picture -- a hat, a house, a boat, or whatever the book publisher had in mind.

I found this fascinating, thrilled that I could make something, that out of nothing something would emerge -- something I could recognize, name, and later, talk about. And while I did not grow up to become an artist, I did develop an interest in the phenomenon of pattern recognition, pattern making, and the various ways in which human beings construct their own reality.

As I got older, it became clear to me that this same children's game of connecting the dots had played itself out, in human history, in many fascinating ways. What were the constellations, if not bigger kids -- the ancient Greeks and Babylonians -- connecting non-numbered dots in the night sky -- the product of their need to make sense out of what they saw.


And so Orion, Canis Major, the Big Dipper, and 84 other configurations of stars came into being -- points of light that were clustered and named by the earth's first farmers as a way to help them figure out when to plant and when to harvest. And to help them remember the constellations they had configured, the farmers made up myths -- wild stories to remind them of the patterns in the sky so they could pass on what they had discovered to next generation.

But it wasn't only farmers who benefited from this connect-the-dots myth-making phenomenon. Ancient sailors did, too, adventurers whose long journeys across unchartered waters were navigated by watching man-made constellations in the skies to mark their position.

This is what human beings do. We connect the dots. We make patterns. And then we translate what we see into stories as a way to remember and communicate to others what we have conjured.

That's what stories are. First there is a point -- an isolated moment in time and space when something becomes perceivable -- a leaf falling, perhaps, a dog barking, a thief, a speck of light. In and of itself, this perceptible thing is just an isolated dot. In the first instant when it becomes known to the observer, it is freestanding, independent, and unrelated to anything else in the universe. It is not connected to the past or the future. It is not the beginning of something or the end of something. There is no plot, no unfolding of events, no Act One, Scene Two. No nothing.

It just is.

But soon the story-making part of ourselves kicks in -- the constellation maker. Ruled by a primal need for meaning and knowing, it begins to connect the dots, to make sense of what it sees. It draws invisible lines through time and space until it sees a picture in its mind, a recognizable shape that helps make sense of experience. Standing beneath the infinite sky of possibilities, this innate pattern-making tendency brings orientation, comfort, and a newfound ability to communicate our subjective experience to others.

Some become movies. Some become books. Some become jokes. Some are told around the kitchen table or never at all.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of creation myths -- the symbolic narratives of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it. Every culture has their own -- elaborate cosmological stories with plots, sub-plots, characters, settings, obstacles and, more often than not, a whole bunch of deities.

Deconstruct any scripture or holy book and you will discover that its DNA is story -- parables, allegories, and tales that have become the human shorthand for delivering meaningful, memorable messages upon which we base our lives.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. When the dots are numbered, and we proceed to connect them in the same, sequential progression, we always arrive at the same picture -- conclusions that everyone can agree on. But when the dots are not numbered and the dot connectors (that's us, folks) realize we have a choice about how we connect the dots and whether to make the lines wiggly, wavy, bold, invisible, or straight, a very different picture emerges and a very different story gets told.

The simplest example of this is a husband and wife arguing. While the same dots may be marked on the paper (or in the sky), the way in which the husband and wife connect the dots is very different, resulting in two very different and, often, conflicting stories. He sees it one way. She sees it the other. The result? The plot of many a modern day sitcom and a 50% divorce rate.

This phenomenon plays out on many other stages, as well. The Israelis, for example, connect the dots differently than the Palestinians. Virgos connect the dots differently than Leos. And the Native Americans connect the dots differently than America's Founding Fathers.

Psychologists attribute our dot connecting behavior to a cognitive principle they have reduced to three words: Motivation affects perception. In other words, we see, they say, what we are primed to see, filtered through our need or desire of the moment -- a phenomenon which Eastern pundits have translated in their own, more metaphorical way, "When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets."

Done well, storytelling is a force for good, an extraordinary way to energize, inspire, and transmit wisdom. Abused, storytelling has an entirely different result. Con artists, for example, tell believable stories, but only with the intention to deceive. The same holds true for corrupt politicians, spin doctors, cheating spouses, warmongers, the sensationalist media, gossipers, most of the advertising world, and anyone else attempting to bend the truth for their own personal gain.

The fact that human beings are story-making machines is undebateable. From the first Paleolithic cave paintings to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, that's what we do.

What's up for grabs is this: the kind of stories we choose to tell.

NOTE: I wrote this in 2015. It was supposed to be included in Storytelling at Work. It wasn't. Why? I forgot I'd written it. D'oh! I just rediscovered it 10 minutes ago.

Storytelling for the Revolution

Child on ladder photo: unsplash-logoSamuel Zeller

Night sky photo; unsplash-logoClint McKoy

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 05:41 PM | Comments (1)

June 27, 2020
The Dying Art of Storytelling in the Classroom


Learning by doing is a very important approach to any conscious teacher's approach to education. However, teachers who take too narrow view of this approach have a tendency to dismiss the value of storytelling in the classroom, assuming it is "too passive". Not a good idea. Here's an interesting perspective on this phenomenon.

unsplash-logoBen White

Storytelling for the Revolution

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 12:54 PM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2020
The Dark Side of Storytelling

prison hands.jpg

Storytelling is like water. It can quench your thirst or it can drown you. Or maybe storytelling is like a knife. It can slice open an orange or it can poke your eye out. Simply put, storytelling is a two-sided coin. One side gives life, the other takes. One side is authentic, the other is counterfeit. And this is, precisely, where the plot thickens, because story, the most effective communication tool human beings have at their disposal, has been used in both ways since the beginning of time.

Yes, some people use it to heal, inspire, and enlighten. But others use it to deceive, control, and manipulate. Storytelling for the Revolution has been written for the first group, the group, I imagine, you identify with. But no how much you identify with the first group, there's always a chance you might, without knowing it, find your way, subconsciously, into the second group, especially during times of stress, fear, or anger.

Let's take a brief tour of the dark side by looking, first, at advertising.

Technically speaking, advertising is nothing more than the practice of calling public attention to a product or service. Is that an inherently bad thing? No, it isn't. Unless, of course, the way in which our attention is being called is ruled by manipulation, control, or deception.

Advertisers, for the most part, are motivated by one driving force -- to get you to buy what they're selling, whether or not what they're selling is actually something you need. They need to sell it, but you may not need to buy it -- that is, until your choices have been shaped by your psychological responses to the ads they keep sending your way. Do you know what story advertisers communicated in the 1950's? That smoking was actually good for your health. Tell that to my mother, who died of emphysema, at 83, after six decades years of smoking unfiltered Chesterfields.

slick guy.jpg

Political spin doctors also walk on the dark side of storytelling. Along with thousands of others watching the news, they listen to the words of the President or the politician du jour, but before the viewing audience has had the time to form their own opinions, the spin doctors do the forming for them. And how they do that is by quickly telling a new story about the story the viewing audience just heard. They interpret what's just been said in whatever way is most likely to sway opinion. The Big Bad Wolf wasn't really all that bad, you see, he was just sleep-deprived or maybe his eyesight was failing. Donald Trump wasn't lying, he was just presenting "alternative facts."

Trial lawyers are masters of this dark art, especially when they deliver their closing arguments. Armed with exactly the same information that has been presented to the jury for weeks, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney tell completely different stories. They pick and choose from the facts that most support the conclusion they want others to believe and they string them together in a way that makes their conclusions seem like fact, when they may not be. And the masters of the trade distill the new story down to as few words as possible. "If the glove don't fit, you gotta acquit" was the eight word story Johnny Cochrane told the jury in defense of OJ Simpson '' and we all know how that turned out.

Perhaps the grossest example of storytelling gone south is "revisionist history" -- what happens when people, with an ulterior motive, attempt to rewrite the past to suit their own needs. The history of early America, for example, is primarily a narrative crafted by white colonialists who specialized in killing Native Americans and stealing their land. "Westward ho!" was the plot line. "The pioneering spirit" was the leading man's motivation. And the back story? "The early settlers quest for religious freedom." Murder? Rape? Plunder? Barely mentioned.

Do you think the Apache, Cherokee, and Oneida are telling the early settlers' version of American history around the tribal fire? No way. Their story, the real story of what happened, goes unheard in public schools. "Those who tell the story, rule the world," explain the Hopis from their underfunded reservation in Oklahoma.


None of my family died in the holocaust, but I have many friends whose family did. Six million Jews died in concentration camps. But the tale tellers of the Holocaust denial movement communicate a very different story these days. They claim, with great passion and "proof," that Nazi Germany's final solution was aimed only at deporting Jews and had nothing to do with exterminating them -- that gas chambers and concentration camps never existed. And they figure if they tell it that story enough times to enough people, popular opinion will change. And it has. There are now thousands of people around world who actually believe the holocaust was a hoax.

Closer to home, the dark side of storytelling (or at least the grey side of storytelling) plays out in just about every marriage in the world. Here's how it works: A conversation begins between husband and wife, one that quickly polarizes both partners. He sees it one way and she sees it another. Buttons get pushed. Old wounds surface. He said/she said rules the day. Which quickly leads to the husband and the wife crafting their own stories about the contentious topic at hand. Each spouse blurts their story to the other, but because feelings are running so high, neither story is heard and, even if it is, it is not believed.

Which leads, of course, to the husband and wife each seeking out their own friends to tell their stories to -- the sole purpose being to get validation. The stories make sense. They are told with great passion. Heads nod. Comforting gestures are made. The wife's friends conclude the husband is a jerk and the husband's friends conclude the wife is a bitch. And on and on it goes. 50% of the time this saga ends up in divorce court, an extraordinary stage where lawyers, far better tale tellers than their embroiled clients, get paid big bucks to concoct the most convincing stories possible for the judge.

Does anyone live happily ever after? Rarely. But a lot of money exchanges hands. And a lot of children will have sad stories to tell, years later, to their own children.

In the end, it all comes down to this: we have two choices. One choice is to be of service to our fellow man -- to uplift, inspire, and awaken. The other choice is to serve ourselves, ruled only by the need for attention, approval, validation, power, control, money, fame, ratings, or our lifelong addiction to hearing ourselves talk.

What choice will you make?

Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling at Work

18th Camel2.jpg

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 07:52 PM | Comments (1)

June 20, 2020
A Simple Way to Identify the Seeds of Your Own Stories


No one knows, for sure, exactly how many species of fruit there are on planet Earth, but with 7,000 species of apples, alone, it's fair to say there are hundreds of thousands -- most of which you and I have never tasted. Inside of each of them is not only a sweetness, but a seed -- or many seeds -- nature's way of ensuring the proliferation of that particular form of nourishment. The seeds come in all shapes and sizes, but no matter what shape or size they may be, if you want to get to the seed, you will need to get past the rind -- or in some cases, the shell.

And so it is with story. Stories also have seeds, the embryonic life force contained within them, but getting to the seeds of a story is not always easy.

To begin with, the rind of a story, especially your own story, can sometimes be difficult to penetrate. Secondly, our stories often contain more than a single seed. The first one may be easy to find, but the second or the third may not. And finally, the person trying to locate the seeds doesn't always have the motivation, tools, or tenacity to get past the rind. And so, the story just sits there -- like piece of fruit in a bowl. It may have color. It may have shape. It may have texture, too, but it's essence remains unexplored.


In modern-day parlance, the seed of a story is called the "moral" -- the key point, lesson, or message. In most fairy tales, the moral is relatively easy to identify, which is why we tell them to children. The Three Little Pigs? Hard work and dedication is often the difference between life and death. Little Red Riding Hood? Obey your parents and don't talk to strangers. Cinderella? Go beyond obstacles and seek your highest dreams.

But your stories and my stories don't always reveal their essence as tidily as fairy tales. The messages contained within them are often hidden from view. Effort is required to get to the core, but it is an effort well worth it. Why? Because contained within the seeds of our stories is the distillation of our deepest insights, knowledge, and wisdom. Our stories, bottom line, are a kind of secret code. Encrypted within them are clues to the mystery and meaning of our lives -- a kind of hieroglyphics of the soul. Yes, the meaning of the stories we tell is sometimes obvious and requires no deciphering. But other times, some inner archeology is needed -- committed digging, poking, and prodding into the hidden chambers within.

If this kind of self-inquiry interests you, it is my pleasure to offer you some digging tools -- tools, in the form of questions, to help you make your way past the rind into the place where the seeds of your life experience abide.

These questions can be asked of two different kinds of audience. The first audience is you. After writing or telling a story, you can simply ask one of more of the following questions to help you get to the core meaning of your story. The second audience is everyone else. But remember, if someone tells you one of their stories, you will first need to ask their permission before asking your questions. Some people, after telling their story are not comfortable being asked questions about it. To them, it may feel like an invasion of privacy or too much of an intellectual exercise. So before asking any of the following questions to the storytellers in your life, be sure to get their permission.

If they say, YES, you're on your way. If they say NO, thank them for sharing and move on. But all is not lost. If you are really taken with the story you were told (or read), you can ask yourself any of the following questions to get to the seed within.

Ready to dig?

1. If there was a "moral" to the story, what would it be?
2. How would I describe this story in 25 words or less?
3. How would I explain this story to a five-year old?
4. What are three things I learned about the hero of the story?
5. What do I find most fascinating about the story? Surprising?
6. How has the story given me pause or changed my outlook on life?
7. What part of the story do I want to know more about?
8. If I were going to rename the story, what would I call it?
9. What elements of the story require more reflection on my part?
10. How can I apply the message of the story to my own life?

Excerpted from this book
Not excerpted from this book
The author of those two books (and this blog post)

Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 03:48 PM | Comments (0)

June 19, 2020
WOOF! WOOF! A Pet Portrait Message from the Other Side

Chili in red3.png

This just in from Chili, my beloved poochie for 11 years who crossed over to the other side a while ago.

"OK, I know this is a storytelling blog and I also know it is not necessarily 'appropriate' for me, as a canine, to be promoting the pet portrait services of Evelyne Pouget, but sometimes you just gotta get 'out of the box', right?

Anyway, as long as I have your attention, here's what I want to say: Evelyne is a fabulous artist who specializes, these days, in pet portraits, especially poochies. She is very connected to my species, brings out our spirit, and is very fairly priced. Plus she is a great person and speaks French, Italian, Spanish, and English.

Oh, I almost forgot, now that she has opened her new art studio in San Miguel, she is taking on pet portrait commissions. Interested? If so, email my old buddy, Mitchie Pie (, who used to take me for long walks, tickled my belly, and tried to get me to laugh at his ridiculous jokes, when no one else in the house was interested. I'm a good boy, Yes, I am! And I know a good pet portrait painter when I see one.

Click the link below for some samples of Evelyne's work."


More of Evelyne's pet portraits

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 04:25 PM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2020
My Father, On the Tarmac


Years ago, before terrorism, shoe bombs, and 9/11, my father and mother were on their way back home from a vacation in the Caribbean. When my father checked in at the airport, tanned and rested, the ticket agent informed him that the flight was "overbooked" and he would have to be re-ticketed and put on a later plane, along with my mom.

This, shall we say, did not sit well with him. After all, he had a confirmed ticket in his pocket and NEEDED TO GET BACK TO WORK. The ticket agent, following airline protocols, repeated the party line, explaining ever-so-politely that Mr. and Mrs. Ditkoff would need to be re-ticketed, which she would be happy to do. This was not the response my father was looking for. Not even close.

So he went to the gate, found an exit door and, along with my mother, made his way onto the tarmac. Once there, he made a beeline for the portable stairway that other passengers on his flight were boarding. Then, he moved to the front of the line, grabbed both handrails tightly and blocked everyone's entrance. Whatever flight attendants tried to do to appease him did not work. He simply grabbed on harder and stood his ground, my mother, somewhat embarrassed, standing off to the side. My father would not budge, not an inch, his verbal commentary as tenacious as his two vice-like grips on the hand rails.

"No one gets on this plane unless we do!" he barked. "No one!"

And no one did. He just stood there, holding on, taking a massive stand for his rights.

PS: Somehow, the flight attendants found two seats for the tanned and rested Barney and Sylvia Ditkoff. Ah... the good old days.

Storytelling for the Revolution

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 12:58 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2020
Ending Violence with Chopsticks


Once upon a time there was old man sitting at sushi bar in Japan, his back turned to the front door. Halfway through his meal, in walks three young thugs, with only one thing in mind -- to attack the old man from behind and steal his money. Quickly looking around the room, they knew this would be an easy day's pay for them, since the old man was the only person in restaurant. What they didn't know, however, was that the old man was actually a great Master of the martial arts -- a legend in self-defense who had been trained from an early age to sense danger from behind.

As the three young thugs approached, the old man, lightly holding a pair of chopsticks in his right hand, plucked a housefly from the air. Just. Like. That. The young thugs noticed, their forward movement slowing dramatically. Then the martial arts master transferred the chopsticks to his left hand, quickly flicked his wrist above his head and caught a second housefly. The young thugs noticed again. Now, transferring the chopsticks to his right hand, the martial arts master performed the feat once again, plucking yet another housefly from the air and depositing it gently next to the other two, both of whom were dazed, but very much alive.

That's when the three young thugs stopped, turned around, and exited the restaurant as quickly as they could. It took them 30 minutes before they could even speak.

FOR YOUR REFFLECTION: This story was told to me by a fifth degree black belt from the same martial arts tradition as the great Master sitting at the sushi bar. When I first heard the story, it had great impact on me -- how violence could be ended without violence and how mastery could manifest itself in many forms to accomplish an extraordinary result.

"A good horse runs at the shadow of the whip", the old saying goes.

The chopsticks story was always one I wanted to include in my new book, but before publishing it, I wanted to make sure I had the story right. So I decided to so some research. I googled. I emailed. I spoke to people from the Master's martial arts lineage. But every effort I made came up empty. Nobody could tell me, for sure, whether or not the story was true.

That's when I realized I had a choice to make. Do I include the story in my book or not? In the end, I did. And why I did is because of the powerful message the story delivers in just a few paragraphs that take only 90 seconds to read.

Did the chopsticks story really happen the way I described it? Maybe. Maybe not. I still don't know. But what I do know is that there is a deep message embedded in the story -- a message that, if deeply imbibed, has the potential to change the way you (and whoever else reads the story) approaches the perceived problems in their life.

Is any story 100% factual? And, other than a story being told in a court of law, does it matter? Stories, by their very nature, morph in the telling. They also morph in relationship to the storyteller's perceptions, interpretation, and mood of the moment -- not unlike what happens in the children's game of telephone. Facts are one thing. Truth is another. Maybe that's why Francis Bacon once said, "Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible."

What danger is approaching you these days? And how might you defuse it in a non-traditional way?

Another martial arts story
The Wisdom Circles of San Miguel

PHOTO: unsplash-logoJuan Encalada

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 04:45 PM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2020
The Long Lost Parable of the Brussels Sprouts


When I was 24, I lived on Martha's Vineyard, an idyllic island off the coast of Cape Cod. The island, with its endless beaches, blue skies, and perfectly winding country roads, was a dream come true.

One of the most extraordinary things about the island, however, had nothing to do with its natural beauty. It had to do with a bakery -- the Scottish Bake House, to be more precise, a cozy, little establishment owned and operated by the very Scottish Mrs. White. The only thing that transcended Mrs. Whites' scones and short breads was her extraordinary generosity. She always seemed to sneak in an extra cookie with each purchase. And then, one fine Spring day, as if that wasn't enough, she donated a full acre of her land to my friends and I to use as a community garden. Bingo!

Visions of homemade pesto sauce dancing in our heads, we planted whatever seeds we could find: tomato, basil, pepper, asparagus, lettuce, string bean, zucchini, cucumber, carrot, cantaloupe, watermelon, cauliflower and the hero of our little story -- Brussels sprouts.

We showed up every day. We watered. We weeded. We mulched. And, before we knew it, in keeping with thousands of years of natural law, everything was in full bloom. Everything, that is, except the Brussels sprouts.


Oh sure, the stalks grew and lots of big, floppy leaves, but no actual vegetables were forthcoming. Figuring we must have bought some bad seed, we shrugged our collective shoulders and went about our business of harvesting the rest of our crop.

And then... badabing, badaboom -- the moment of truth.

As I was tending the tomato plants, just before harvesting, I accidentally dropped my glasses, bent to retrieve them, and just so happened to look in the direction of the pitifully under-performing row of Brussels sprouts.

Lo and behold! I say unto you! There, as far as the eye could see, were Brussels sprouts everywhere -- enough, it seemed, to feed a small nation. Clustered on the stalks, the Brussels sprouts were growing under the leaves. From a standing position, it was impossible to see them. Who knew? They were hidden from sight, amateur gardeners as we were.

For the next two hours, all we did was pick Brussels sprouts -- six bushel baskets worth. For the next few weeks, we ate more kinds of Brussels sprouts dishes than most people eat in a lifetime.

When I stop and think about it, discovering the naturally occurring goodness inside of us is not all that different. It's there, but sometimes it's just hidden from view. We don't see it, so we think it doesn't exist. But it does exist. It does. All we need to do is know where to look.

Then we can feast.

Photo #1: Cyrus Crossen, Unsplash
Photo #2: Darren Wanliss, Unsplash

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 09:15 AM | Comments (0)


Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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