Storytelling at Work
March 28, 2021
CONNECTING THE DOTS

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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.

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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
MitchDitkoff.com

Child on ladder photo: unsplash-logoSamuel Zeller

Night sky photo; unsplash-logoClint McKoy

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

March 05, 2021
A Simple Way to Identify the Seeds of Your Own Stories

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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.

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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)

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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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