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Finding Stories That Convey Your Values

by Doug Lipman

This article appeared in The Storytelling Coach Newsletter.

Table of Contents:

1. Clarifying the value
2. Scanning for memories and images
Memories
Images
3. Developing the stories
Experiments in Value Telling

Over the years, I’ve helped many tellers improve a story by discovering what, for them, is the story’s central meaning. In short, I’ve helped them take a story and determine what they want it to communicate.

But what about the reverse process? If we start from a value that we want a story to convey, how do we find a story to do the job? This is the process I’ve come to call Value Telling (TM). It has three major parts.

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1. Clarifying the value

The first part of the process - easy to skip, but essential to an efficient use of your time - is to think carefully about the value you want to convey. (In this article, I’ll focus on “values,” but a similar process works with a concept, “lesson,” or any form of idea.)

Suppose the value we want to explore through stories is “cooperation.” Begin by talking about what cooperation means to you. For example, are you thinking of willing cooperation, as on a joint venture? Or are you imagining cooperation between folks who might tend to think of each other as competitors or adversaries?

Go on to list the particulars you might want to communicate about cooperation. For example, you might come up with a list something like this:

  • Cooperation involves giving up something to gain something.
  • By cooperating, we become more powerful.
  • Cooperation leads to a life based on respect, love, and even joy.
  • Cooperation with the wrong people or institutions eats away at integrity.

The more pieces you can recognize of what “cooperation” means to you, the easier it will be to come up with stories.

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2. Scanning for memories and images

The second step is to scan for your associations with the items on the list you just made. I usually divide this process into two parts, “memories” and “images.”

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Memories
To scan for memories, take each item on your list, and ask yourself one or more of these questions (a listener may be valuable here):

  • What happened to you, to cause you to value this?
  • How did you first learn about this value?
  • Where were you when you first discovered this value? Where were you living? Working (or studying)?
  • What strengths, successes, difficulties or failures led you to adopt this value?
  • Was there a time this value seemed no longer useful? What happened to cause you to retain or re-adopt it?
You may have more than one answer for several of these questions. For example, I can think of at least three different times I “learned” the value of keeping those I coach in charge of the goals of a coaching session. Don’t worry whether an episode “really” answers a question. You’re just looking for episodes that come to mind in response to a question. Later you can decide which episodes really fit.

On the other hand, the first episode you thought of may compel you. If you feel strongly about it, stay with it. Tell it fully to a partner. Get appreciations. If it seems at all promising, tell it again.

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Images
To scan for images, have someone read you an item from your list. Then notice whatever association or image comes into your mind. Tell it aloud, whether it makes sense to you or not. You may come up with a memory, an image from a story you’ve heard, or an image that your mind has created. By telling it aloud, you will almost always find yourself with something interesting - and will, in time, realize why it relates to the value. (This process was created by Pam McGrath for our workshop on “Finding the Sacred in Stories.”)

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3. Developing the stories

Once you have a memory or an image, you’ll likely be on more familiar storytelling ground. Tell your memory or image, get appreciations, find it’s “MIT” for you, retell. Repeat until satisfied.

There is an extra step, however, to make sure the story remains relevant to value you’ve chosen for it. After you tell your image or memory aloud a time or two, ask yourself, “What is the ‘story’ of cooperation in this story?” In other words, what are the beginning and ending states of this story with regard to cooperation? Then find the episodes that most clearly embody this progress and its turning points.

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Experiments in Value Telling (TM)

I’ve begun doing 1-day workshops in the corporate world, helping executives embody their values in stories. I’ve been able to lead them through a short form of the process described above. But this subject really deserves a full weekend. So I’ve set up a first-ever “Value Telling (TM)” weekend on the oceanside in Scituate, Massachusetts. (For more information, email, call or write.)

If you have experimented with this process - or another one for coming up with stories to express values - I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
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