Storytelling at Work
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

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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.

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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

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

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

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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 07, 2020
Doors Begin to Open When We Ask the Right Question

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"What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question." - Jonas Salk

Sometimes, I feel like I'm living in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I look I see myself looking everywhere looking at myself looking. Kind of like that physicist (whose name I do not know) who explained that the universe was curved and if you looked long enough through a powerful enough telescope into the far reaches of space you would, eventually, see your own butt.

What follows is one of those reflections in one of those mirrors.

On February 22nd, 2020, I arrived in Melbourne, Australia. My mission? To teach 34 teachers and senior leaders at Al Siraat College (a K-12 Islamic school) how to establish high performing teams. I had only 30 days to accomplish the task in a series of eight, 90-minute workshops with people from at least ten different ethnic groups.

This being my fifth, one-month residency at the school in the past three years, I was, by this time, a known entity, a member of the tribe, mostly trusted, and the future author of A Thousand Muslims and a Jew.


Anyway, two weeks into my residency, Fazeel, the Co-Founder and Principal of the school, asked if I'd like a full-time position -- an invitation that would require me to live in Australia for eight months out of the year.

Twilight Zone, anyone?

Two days into contemplating Fazeel's kind invitation, the Coronavirus hit the fan and, as a result, many parents of Al Siraat students lost their jobs and their ability to pay tuition. Simply put, Al Siraat's funding for outside consultants dried up, leaving the school with only enough budget for me to work six hours per week (instead of the 45 I was accustomed to.)

Six hours of work per week, as you might guess, was not enough for me to live on -- and, with all my other clients closing up shop, going south, or too catatonic to know if they were closing up shop or going south, I had a decision to make: stay or go?

With the airports shut down, my decision was easy to make. I stayed.

And so, for the next two weeks, I did the Australian hoky poky, trying to figure out how I could deliver the most possible value in just six hours per week -- while wondering if my occasional coughing fits were something I should worry about while Pakistani soap operas, in Urdu, played on in the AirBB that was now my home for who knew how long.

With my hours being cut by 85%, I now had to work faster, smarter, have shorter conversations, invent nothing new, cut everything that seemed non-essential, refuse invitations to meetings, and be way less available to answer questions than ever before. I was a walking haiku or, at least, I was trying to be.

And all the while, I was experiencing, deep inside me, a low-grade virus of existential despair as I watched much of the progress I had made these past few weeks (and months of development before that) go up in socially distanced smoke. I'm not sure how you say "oy vey" in Arabic, but that's what I was feeling.

And then? Out of the blue, I had as close to an epiphany as I have ever had. D'oh! Fazeel and I had been trying to solve the wrong problem! "How can Al Siraat get as much value as possible from Mitch in just six hours per week?" was the wrong question! Not even close! The way we had framed our challenge had created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We had stacked the deck against us without even knowing it.

Obvious to me now, an entirely different question bubbled to the surface: "How can we find an outside funding source to underwrite the training Mitch had been hired to facilitate at Al Siraat?"

In other words, we needed to go beyond the limiting assumption that my fee could only be paid by the school. Who said that only the school could pay for my services? Where was it written, in stone, that an outside benefactor could not become part of the equation? What was preventing us from looking to the local community for alternate sources of funding?

See what I'm saying?


The next day, sitting in my very temporary office, the very radiant Sev Bektash, one of the school's most open-minded teachers, poked his head in and asked if I had a few minutes to chat.

With no particular topic in mind, the two of us opened up a juicy conversation -- two alchemical friends hanging out in the middle of a pandemic.

Ten minutes into our talk, Sev let it fly that one of his most enjoyable side-projects -- leading weekend retreats for troubled teens -- had been funded, in the past, by a very generous, forward-thinking, local Islamic businessman.

"Hmm..." I thought to myself. "A very generous local Islamic businessman... might he be a possible benefactor to fund Al Siraat's Team Leadership Training and, by extension, moi?"

So I pitched the idea to Sev who loved it immediately and volunteered to hand deliver our to-be-written proposal to our benefactor-in-waiting as soon as it was ready. Whoo hoo!

The next day I wrote the proposal, gave it to Sev, Fazeel, and Esra for them to edit, which they did, refining our request. Two days later, Sev drove 30 minutes into Melbourne and hand delivered our hot-off-the-press proposal. Bingo! Contact! Lift off! Our very generous, local Islamic businessman loved it. Perfect timing! The only thing left to do to seal the deal, was for me, the next day, to return with Sev to meet with our benefactor-to-be. The "sniff test", I think it's called.

Thirty minutes into our pow wow, our new delightful, heartfelt, soulful benefactor gave his thumbs up and told us what a blessing it was for him to have such a wonderful opportunity to be of service.

And that is why I'm still in Australia and will continue to be for another three months -- a turn of events that only happened because I questioned the question, replaced it with a more expansive one, and invited my Islamic colleagues to join me in exploring it.

As Henry David Thoreau once said, "It's not what you look it that matters. It's what you see."


What questions are YOU asking these days? About your life? Your work? Your relationships? Your hopes and dreams? Racial equality? Peace on Earth?

Take a few minutes now to jot these questions down and poke at them. Are they really the questions you need to be asking? Or might they be full of limiting assumptions and pre-conceived ideas?

Is it possible there is another question you could be asking yourself these days -- a bigger question... a bolder question... a path less traveled question -- one that might spark some breakthroughs for you and, who knows, maybe the rest of the world, as well?

On asking the right question
Excerpt from A Thousand Muslims and a Jew
An outtake from the Team Leadership Training
Another way of looking at a problem

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 12:31 AM | 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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