eTips is a free, monthly electronic newsletter from Doug Lipman. You can subscribe, unsubscribe, or read a more detailed description of the newsletter at the eTips page. You can also read the other back issues.
Here is eTips from the Storytelling Coach #10: Is
Storytelling Still Important?
It's an understandable reaction. A great tragedy happens,
affecting the survival of thousands of people. Some
storytellers - and other artists - say to themselves, "With
so many suffering, my art seems unimportant."
But I believe that art is even more important in the
aftermath of disaster. All forms of art can help us deal
with shock, grief, and rage. Art can offer us perspective
and even guidance.
Storytelling, furthermore, can speak directly to the issues
of the day:
Listening to people's experiences and reactions helps
them recover from trauma.
Telling the life stories of those who died preserves
Telling the stories of peoples targeted for "revenge"
Telling stories of non-violent response to violence
offers us clear alternatives to the urge to respond to
killing with more killing.
But there's a less-discussed aspect of the storytelling
craft that I think is especially relevant for today: how the
meaning of stories can be changed drastically by simple
changes in narrative.
***Where Does The Story Start?***
Every action happens in a context. Our understanding of the
context determines our interpretation of the action's
meaning. In a story, the context of an action is provided in
large measure by the episodes that precede it.
Consider a simple story: a dog bites a child. If this is the
entire story, what is it is likely to mean to you? For most
of us, the answer is something like, "The dog did something
But what happens if we add another episode to the beginning
of the same "story"? If the story begins with the child
hurting the dog before the dog bites, for example, most of
us would conclude, "The child did something bad."
On the other hand, suppose we added a different episode.
What if the story began with the small child about to crawl
into a deep well? Suddenly, the dog is the hero for biting -
and saving the child's life!
When telling a story from history, different people will
choose different episodes, thus creating stories with
different meanings. When we communicate with people from
other cultures, we can assume that they view current events
in a different context than we do - that they associate
different earlier events with the current ones.
***What a Story Evokes - for Different Folks***
In order to communicate successfully, then, we need to know
what stories our listeners already have in their minds. We
need to know which episodes are evoked for them by the story
Thus, as we join with the vast majority of the Arab world in
attempting to prevent further acts of atrocity, our mutual
goals will be greatly assisted if we have learned more about
the stories in Arab minds.
For us in the U.S., for example, the word "Gihad" signifies
a Muslim holy war, perhaps with overtones of terrorism. This
term may even call up images of atrocities carried out by
the extremist group "Islamic Gihad." For Muslims, the word
means "struggle," and calls to mind the internal struggle
against our baser impulses as well as armed resistance to
forces that threaten Islam from the outside.
The term "Crusade," on the other hand, evokes for us a
dedicated effort towards a worthy cause. But in the Islamic
world, "Crusade" connotes a Christian holy war. In
particular, Muslims are reminded of the European invasions
of their lands in an attempt to force all Muslims from the
city of Jerusalem.
More is at stake here than definitions. First, as our
leaders attempt to communicate with us and with other
peoples, they will be forced to choose which historical
episodes their "stories" include. (For more on the "stories"
that leaders create, see Howard Gardner's "Leading Minds" -
reviewed in eTips #1.)
Second, we are all listeners to the "stories" told to us.
Being aware of which episodes are invoked (or ignored) will
help us distinguish constructive, clarifying stories from
stories that attempt to steer us into destructive actions.
In either case, the storyteller's awareness of the power of
adding (or omitting) episodes is much needed - now, more
2) WORKSHOP ANNOUNCEMENT: MINI-WORKSHOPS IN FOUR CITIES
This fall, you have a chance to experience mini-workshops in
four different places. (Not sure what happens in a
mini-workshop or if you'd be able to gain from it? Just
email me back for more information, or go to
All mini-workshops cost $125 and last 4-5 hours. Each
participant will be coached for 40 minutes. Here's the
Chicago (Burr Ridge), IL: Monday afternoon, October 1,
3-7pm [two openings]
Chicago (Glencoe), IL: Tuesday morning, October 2,
9:30am-2:00pm [two openings]
Jonesborough, TN: Thursday afternoon, October 4, 2-6pm
Jonesborough, TN: Tuesday afternoon, October 9, 1-5pm
Atlanta, GA: Tuesday evening Oct 16 6-10pm [one opening]
Atlanta, GA: Wednesday morning Oct 17 9-1pm [one
Boston: Tuesday, Oct 23 10am-3:30pm [one opening]
Boston: Wednesday evening, Oct 24 6pm-10pm [Waiting
3) WORKSHOP ANNOUNCEMENT: STORYTELLING COACHING AND COACHING COACHES - IN ONE WORKSHOP!
In the last issue of eTips, I reported on my only scheduled
Coaching Coaches workshop for the next year (November
29-December 2, 2001, in Schenectady, NY. Email me for
But since then, Mary Hamilton and Cynthia Changaris have
arranged for Pam McGrath and me to offer a new concept in
workshops. This coming January 2-4, in a beautiful riverside
bed-and-breakfast on the Kentucky river, you will have the
choice of getting coached purely on your storytelling - or
of also being coached on your coaching. And get this: you
won't even have to choose between these "tracks" until after
the workshop has started and you have heard Pam and me
present your options in detail. For more information, email
me - or contact Cynthia at <>.
All the best,
P. S., Email me for one or all of these, or view them on the
Article about changing a story's meaning by adding episodes: