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Would standards ruin storytelling?

If you want to get storytellers arguing, just mention “standards.” Some people claim that storytelling is suffering for lack of performance standards; others say it will suffer even more if we have standards.

I’m not even talking about what is a suitable story or how to tell it. Rather, I’m talking here about PROFESSIONAL standards: how we relate to those who engage us to tell stories, and to our listeners, students, etc.

This issue applies to performers, of course, but it also applies to story-educators, story-trainers, consultants in organizations, coaches, etc.

Are there values we don’t want to compromise?

I said, “No!”

I have opposed such discussions in the past. Why? Well, storytelling can’t be derived from standards. It comes from imagery, not from principles.

If you instruct people in the “principles of storytelling,” for example, you tend to get bad storytelling results. After all, if you didn’t know how to walk, suppose someone tried to teach you by saying, “Walking is just a controlled fall from one leg to the other.” That’s a true statement, but would it help you? Has anyone ever learned to walk from knowing that principle?

On the contrary, the strength of storytelling is that, in a society where we sometimes trust analytic thinking too much, storytelling can help put us back in touch with the value of experience. It can free us from our over-dependence on “standards.”

To make matters worse, to most storytellers the word “standards” suggests something prescriptive, judgemental, inflexible, and exclusionary.

So why would we need professional standards? Is there possibly a way to create them that doesn’t have these negative effects?

Karen’s Patience

Karen Dietz, former executive director of the National Storytelling Network and new chair of its Storytelling in Organizations special interest group ( was kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me, explaining why she thought this was not only a good idea, but an important one.

She said, “Look, Doug. We each have standards (or principles or values, whatever you want to call them). We don’t always know we have them, though. But as soon as someone violates our values, we think, ‘Wait a minute!’

“But what happens then?” she continued. “If it’s just our personal point of view against the attitude of the person who has hired us, we’re at a great disadvantage trying to stand up for our principles.

“But imagine this: What if we had a list of those values that we, as a community, all happened to agree on?

“Then,” she went on, “we could say to an organizer or employer, ‘What you just asked me to do violates a commonly held principle of the National Storytelling Network!’ That would make it easier to insist, since others would have supported my point of view.”

I said, “Sure, Karen, I’d like a whole community behind me. But who would come up with these standards? Wouldn’t the result be elitist and exclusionary?”

She said, “No, Doug. I’m not talking ‘top-down’ here. We need to find the values we already have. If each of us looks for the values we do hold, then we can search for the ones we have in common.

“I hope we will have a public discussion on which principles really represent our community. Even if there are only 3 or 4 values we agree on, it would be wonderful to know that we all agree on those.”

The Dark Side of Storytelling

I realized, once I had talked to Karen, that it was an important value to me that “stories must not be used to hide the truth.” I had never put that idea together with the word “standard.”

But one day I arrived at a conference where I had been hired to tell stories about the proceedings. Once I got there, though, I learned that an important part of the truth about the conference subject was considered “off limits” for stories. I thought, “Foul!”

But what was the foul line that had been crossed? I had never articulated or defended my unconsciously held value about not telling stories that lie through omission. As a result, I was unprepared to deal with it. If I had thought about it in advance, I would have handled that situation better.

Important for all of us?

Karen was talking mostly about the story work some of us do in businesses and other organizations. But I think the problem applies to all the work that storytellers do.

I want to begin thinking, for myself at least, what my standards are. And I’d love to hear some of yours.

This is issue #75 of “eTips from the Storytelling Coach” You can sign up for your free monthly subscription (complete with money-saving subscriber specials and announcements) in the upper right corner of this page.

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