Storytelling at Work
October 07, 2017

Wizard Storyteller3.jpgI stand before you tonight for one purpose and one purpose only -- to launch a revolution. Not the kind that overthrows a government. Not the kind that replaces one political system with another. And not the kind that takes life. No. The revolution I am launching gives life -- a revolution of wisdom or, better yet, a revelation of wisdom -- a way that each and everyone of us can change things for the better on planet Earth.

My weapon of choice? Not a gun. Not a hand grenade. Not a bomb. My weapon of choice is a story. Yes, you heard that right -- a story.

Most revolutionaries have a manifesto -- a strongly worded statement of their purpose. I have one, too, but you won't need to write it down to remember it. My manifesto is already encoded in your cells. It lives inside you and always has. Like the neuroscientists like to say, "the human brain is wired for story". We are storytelling animals -- going all the back to our tribal ancestors standing around the fire and telling their stories of the day.


No matter what our differences, there is one thing we all share in common: We all belong to the same species -- "homo sapiens" -- the Latin term for "wise person".

Yes, we all know something. We do. Our challenge? How do we communicate what we know to each other? That's the real question. Because once we do, things will begin changing for the better.

Steve Jobs may have said it best. "The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the values, mission, and agenda of an entire generation that is yet to come."

And Steve is in excellent company. According to the Hopi Indians: "He that tells the story rules the world".

Powerful words, but what do they really mean? Well, instead of talking about story to make my point, allow me to actually tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a wealthy merchant traveling across India on a month-long buying trip -- a journey he made twice a year, going to off-the-beaten-path villages to buy the finest of silks and brocades.

Two days into his journey, while dining at a roadside hotel, the merchant was approached by a young man.

"Oh merchant," the young lad began. "You are old and I am young. You are frail and I am strong. Allow me to assist you, to carry what needs to be carried. Your journey will be more successful and I will get a chance to earn a much needed living."

And so the merchant hired him on the spot. Each night the two of them dined together on the finest of foods and each night, about 20 minutes into the meal, the young man would politely excuse himself -- not to use the bathroom or go for a walk -- but to search the merchant's room, looking for money to steal. Alas, he never found a single penny. Then, on the final night of the journey, racked with guilt and a big dose of curiosity, the thief confessed.

"Kind sir, ever since we met I have had only one thing in mind -- to rob you. Each night I searched your room, looking under your pillow and everywhere else, but I never found your money. Your kindness has humbled me and now all I can do now is ask your forgiveness. But before we go our separate ways, I must ask one thing: Where did you hide your money?"

"Ah..." replied the merchant. "I knew from the moment we met that you were a thief. That was obvious. So I hid my money in the only place I knew you wouldn't look. I hid my money under your pillow."

The riches I'm talking about tonight is not gold, stock options, or the almighty buck. I'm talking about what money cannot buy. Insight. Understanding. Meaning. And the highest expression of all: Wisdom. Inside of each of us there is great wisdom -- an intuitive knowing of something beyond space and time. But like the merchant's fortune, it is hiding. Where is it hiding? Under our pillow. And the pillow is story.

How does a person experience wisdom in the first place -- something actually worthy of communicating?
There are many ways. Some people read holy books. Some meditate. Some are initiated into it by a Wise Teacher or Master. And for some, wisdom simply comes with time. But no matter how we get our first taste of it, the challenge, eventually, is how do we communicate what we know to others?

Deconstruct any scripture, any sermon, any TED talk and you will find story! That's how most meaningful messages are conveyed. Indeed, social scientists tell us that 65% of all human conversations are made up of story -- either narrative accounts of what's happened in the past or our imaginings of what we'd like to see happen in the future.


Story is everywhere. As author, Madeleine D'Engle, noted: "There are entire societies that have never used the wheel. But there are no societies that did not tell stories." Other than breath, story may be the single most common denominator we all share in common.

Here's what the neuroscientists tell us: When a storyteller shares their experience, the same parts of the brain light up in the listener as lit up in the storyteller's brain upon first having the experience they are sharing. "Mood contagion" it is sometimes called. "Somatic states". "Neural coupling" -- the phenomenon of one person being able to transmit not only information about X, Y, or Z, but a feeling imbued with the power to spark transformation. "Mind Meld" as Dr. Spock would have called it -- how one person transmits hard-to-communicate "tacit knowledge" to another.

The question isn't whether or not storytelling works. It does. The question is: Are we going to step up and tell our stories?" And, equally as important, What kind of stories are we going to tell?

Storytelling, you see, is like a knife. You can use it to spread butter on toast or you can use it to poke somebody's eye out. Sages, rabbis, priests, elders, teachers, and light-bearing people of all kinds use story to communicate meaningful, memorable messages -- timeless truths and principles. That's the good news. But there's also a dark side to storytelling. It can be used to manipulate and control. Think political spin doctors. Think revisionist history. Think advertising at its worst.

If you really want to witness the power of story to color our collective mindset, all you need to do is watch the evening news. The stories the media likes to tell? Stories of violence, corruption, war, greed, rape, murder, bombings, terrorism, fraud, fires, and scandal -- with an occasional cat being rescued from a tree just so we don't just all jump off a bridge and screw up their ratings.

90% of all nightly news stories are negative. I get it. Bad news sells. I get that there's a lot of "bad stuff" going on in the world and knowing about it is the first step toward doing something about it. Please don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that we airbrush the bad news from our lives. Even Fairy Tales have "bad news" -- the monster, the demon, and the Big Bad Wolf.

True. But how about we strike more of a balance? What if each and everyone of us chose to share more of the good stories with each other -- not just on Sundays, but everyday -- stories of breakthrough, learning, insight, and kindness -- stories that inspire, awaken, and yes, spark wisdom.

What would happen if we elevated the conversation -- one story at a time on this big, beautiful planet of ours?

Because what we say, what we express, what we put out there in the world is not just about reporting on so-called reality. It's also about shaping reality. Like one novelist put it, "People think human beings create stories. In fact, it's the other way around."

And all of this begins with you and me. Not our so-called leaders. Not the government. Not the movie makers, novelists, and programmers -- though they can certainly help. It begins with us.

I'm sure you've heart the expression "Power to the People?" Yes? And I'm sure you've heard the expression "Information is Power?" Yes? Well... what I'm saying is that if you want to be informed about what really matters, if you want reclaim your power, then get on the front lines of storytelling.

You may not own CNN, FOX News or NBC, but you are in the broadcasting business. You are your own news station. You get to program the kind of news that goes out into the world.

In 1993, a group of 4,000 meditators in Washington DC, over the course of two months, demonstrated that crime could be reduced in the U.S. capital -- in their case, by 23%, simply by meditating. (Before this experiment, the DC chief of police claimed that the only way crime could be reduced by 20% was if there was 20 inches of snow!)

I can't tell you how that mass meditation experiment worked (fans of Rupert Sheldrake might explain it as the "morphogenetic field.") All I know is that it worked. What if all 7.8 billion of us began telling wisdom stories? What might change? How might the conversations we are having shape our reality?

Here's an example from my own life.


Some years ago, I was hired by a large food manufacturer to facilitate a brainstorming session to help them invent a new kind of salty snack food. On the morning of the session, my day began like any other day. I woke up. I showered, shaved, dressed, picked up a USA Today from the lobby and got into a cab. Glancing at my driver's photo and name on the dashboard, it was clear to me he was not from this country. The spelling of his name seemed odd. It has many consonants in a row, kind of like someone had put a bunch of scrabble tiles in a bag, shook them, and randomly pulled them out. At that moment, I had a choice, I could have napped, read the paper, or checked my email. Or I could have started a conversation with him -- a risky proposition, as many foreign cabbies, in my experience, especially ones who worked the early shift, didn't seem to like Americans.

Screw it. I spoke.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"Afghanistan", he replied -- a piece of information that stopped me dead in my tracks, America being smack in the middle of that horrendous war. Yes, that could have been the end of the story, but I decided to ask him how it was he came to live in America.

There was long, silent, pause, and then he spoke.

You see, he was out for a walk with his daughter, one day, in a field outside of his village when his daughter stepped on a landmine. So he ripped off his shirt and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Then, with his daughter on his back, he went madly in search of a doctor. But there were no doctors. Villagers took him and his daughter in, applying home made remedies to her mangled leg, but his daughter was rapidly losing it, drifting in and out of consciousness. Then, one of the villagers told him of an outpost of nurses from the Mayo Clinic not far away. He got there and collapsed. They tended to his daughter, kept her alive, and flew her Minneapolis for surgery. Then they flew him and his wife to join their daughter as she went through more surgeries, the fitting or a prosthetic leg, and major rehabilitation. They decided to stay in America. Eventually, he got a job as a cab driver and I was now in his back seat.

You know they expression "worlds collide?" Well.. I was in the epicenter of it.

When we finally got to my client's headquarters, my driver and I both got out of the cab. I paid him. Then we hugged. No words were spoken. As I got into the elevator, I knew I had a choice to make. Do I begin my session with a traditional icebreaker or do I start with the story of my journey from hotel to headquarters? It wasn't a difficult choice to make. As Maya Angelou said, "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you".


So I opened the meeting with my Afghani cab driver story. And while I was sure I needed to tell it, I wasn't sure how the people in the room would react. It could have bombed. They could have looked at me, cross-eyed. But they didn't. Their eyes didn't cross. They opened. So did their minds. And so did something they all-too-rarely bring to work -- their hearts. My little story had a profound effect of them. Peter Guber, author of Tell To Win, refers to this as "emotional transportation".

This is the kind of revolution I'm talking about, folks -- the revolution of feeling... the revolution of perspective... the revolution of wisdom shared via the medium of story.

Indeed, a single story has the power to change mood, change minds, and change what's possible. My life changed in the telling of that story. And theirs did, too. There was a revolution in the room. You could feel it. With the telling of my Afghani cab driver story the people in the room were now revolving around something much bigger than before the story was told. A new kind of orbit was born.

Every day, when a friend passes you on the street and asks "Whassup?", you have the same choice I did. You can talk about your aching back, the weather, and the latest scandal, or you can elevate the conversation by telling a story that matters. I'm not suggesting you enter into some kind of long-winded monologue or try to convince your friend of something. No. Many stories can be told in 90 seconds or less and the good ones deliver the message without the teller having to evangelize.

As Hannah Arendt once said, "Story reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."

I've told two kinds of story tonight. The first one, the story of the merchant, is known as a Springboard Story -- the kind of classic tale that has, embedded within it, a universal message. Every tradition has them. Sufi stories. Zen stories. Stories told by Hasidic rabbis. Stories from the Bible. Or any number of Fairy Tales. This is how all of the great sages, teachers, and masters teach and this is how we can teach each other.

The second story I told tonight -- the Afghani cab driver story -- was a personal story. I didn't read it in a book. I lived it But equally important, I told it. I shared it. I got it out of my head and into the world. I took that knife and spread some butter on your toast.

You, too, have stories to tell. I know you do. Some of them may be of the Springboard story variety. But you also have your own, personal stories to tell -- your own spontaneously occurring "moments of truth" -- an obstacle overcome... a lesson learned... a breakthrough... a rite of passage... a random act of kindness. All of us have these experiences. Every single one of us. And they have great power. But only if they are shared.

You may, like many people, think you are not a good storyteller. You may think people won't listen or you will bore people. Not true! You are already a good storyteller. You've been telling stories all your life. It's what psychologists call an "unconscious competency". Like breathing. Or thinking. Or riding a bike. You may not be able to explain how you do it, but you know how. You do. You're a natural. It's in your bones.

So this is my invitation to you: Join the storytelling revolution. Step up to the plate and let it rip! Don't just evolve. Revolve! Revolve around a much bigger sun than bad news, gossip, and complaint. Liberate the storyteller within. As one pundit put it: "The role of the storyteller is to awaken the storyteller in others."

This has been my job tonight. But it's your job, too -- that is IF you want to change the collective narrative that shapes our lives.

How to begin? It's simple. In this moment, think of a story you have heard that inspires you -- maybe something a friend told you or a grandparent, or a teacher, or someone you sat next to on a plane. Or maybe no one told you. Maybe you read it a book -- a story that, like a beautiful piece of music, you never get tired of hearing. Got it? Good.


The second kind of story I want you to remember is one of your own -- something that happened to you -- a memorable moment... a challenge overcome.. a lesson learned... almost dying... falling in love... the birth of a child... a chance encounter... like what happened to me in the back seat of the cab. Got it? Good.

Now, oh comrades of the newly forming Storytelling Revolution, if you are willing to share your story with someone in the next few days, I invite you to stand up. Go ahead, take a stand for story. Are you with me?

Cool. Stay standing.

You may be wondering how to begin. It's easy. There is only one sentence you need, one segue, to get the ball rolling when you're in a conversation. And it is this: "That reminds me of a story". As long as you are listening and the story you tell connects in some way to the conversation you're in, you are on your way.

And when you're done, give the person you're talking to the gift of your attention. Give them space to respond. Don't just hit and run now that your story has been told. Stay in the space your story opened up. Perhaps your story will remind them of a story they want to tell. And relax. You won't need lot of time for this. Just a few minutes is enough. After all, you'll watch the evening new for 30 minutes at a clip. All I'm asking for is ten. And with the other 20 minutes you will have saved? Have some fun. Or walk the dog. Or read my book.

In the revolution I'm inviting you to join, we're all on the front line -- the line called NOW. No one is injured. Everyone is healed. No one is killed. Everyone lives. Lives! Not just survives! LIVES -- and experiences what it truly means to be conscious, awake, and an active member of the world community of wise ones.

You in? That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

NOTE: My TED talk has not yet been given. Telling you the story of my future TED talk is my next step in creating it. Intention matters. Words matter. The stories we tell ourselves matter. Stay tuned!

Storytelling is the Trojan Horse of Wisdom

The Secret Code of Tacit Knowledge
Why Tell Stories?
What Kind of Stories Will You Tell Today?
The Art of Using Story to Communicate Big Ideas
Real Moments of Truth on the Job
My Podcasts, Videos, and Interviews on Storytelling
Storytelling at Work: My New Book

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at October 7, 2017 11:02 AM


I have a distinct feeling that any of your stories can make a hit on TedTalks! glad you're here!

Posted by: Dbirdey [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 3, 2016 03:14 PM

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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.

Order the book:

Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
The Workshop
Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
Wisdom Circles
Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
Podcasts & Videos
Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
Blogs 'R Us
If you like this blog, you might also like Mitch's other two blogs: The Heart of Innovation and The Heart of the Matter. Mitch is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Idea Champions
When Mitch isn't writing, he's captaining the good ship Idea Champions, a leading edge innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. What their clients say.