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How Does a Story Mean?

We tend to assume that a story has a single meaning. “I need a story about cooperation,” you might say to a group of storytellers, as though the meaning about cooperation is fully embedded in the story itself.

But is this an accurate assumption? What is the exact relationship between a story and the meaning or meanings that a listener experiences? If you tell stories in a practical context (such as business, religion, education, therapy, public policy, or persuasion of any kind) what is a useful way to think about how stories convey meaning?

Interpreting a 3-Word Sentence

Let’s start simple and work our way toward complexity.

Suppose Jack said to Jill, “I love you!” What meaning does Jill attribute to that three-word statement?

Obviously, it depends on Jill’s past experiences with Jack and her attitude toward him. For example, does she take Jack’s statement as a long-awaited declaration of undying affection? Or does she take it as an insincere attempt at seduction?

Equally obviously, Jill’s interpretation of meaning depends on the immediate context – on where they are and on what has just happened.

For example, if they were sailing on Jack’s yacht for the twentieth time and she had just told him that she was sick of sailing in stormy weather, does she take Jack’s statement as an attempt to stop her from being mad at him?

Or if they had met only three days ago on a cruise ship and she had just told Jack that she has decided to leave the cruise and go back to Yonkers, does she take Jack’s “I love you” as his attempt to make her change her mind and continue with the cruise?

In other words, Jill’s interpretation of Jack’s words depends on the nature of her relationship to Jack, her attitudes toward him, and the context of his remarks. But that’s just part of the problem.

But the Story of Jill?

Jill is responding to the Jack she knows. But what if you hear about all this second-hand? In short, how is this different for the listener to a story about Jack and Jill?

There are multiple differences between Jill’s interpretation and a listener’s interpretation. For today’s discussion, let’s notice simply that Jill has first-hand knowledge of what happened with Jack. But the listener to Jill’s story has to imagine what happens during Jill’s story, based on the storyteller’s description.

What Actually Happened?

Even though you and I may have heard the same story about Jill and Jack, we may imagine subtly different events.

For example, suppose you heard a story that begins like this:

“On the shifting deck, Jack knelt down in front of Jill and said, ‘I love you!’”

When you read that, you most likely created your own mental images. For example, you probably created a “shifting deck” in your mind.

Take a moment to notice: What was YOUR “shifting deck”?

Did you imagine the deck of an ocean liner? Or of a sailing ship? Or did you imagine the porch of a house in an earthquake? Or…?

And when Jack knelt down, how did you imagine him? Was he on one knee or two? Was he looking at Jill or not? Did you imagine how he was dressed?

If you took the time to imagine that scene, you imagined it in your own way. No two people ever imagine a scene exactly the same way, because each has his or her own predilections and memories to draw on.

So the details of your images differ from Jill’s and from every other listener’s. Your exact version of the story itself is unique! It’s no surprise, then, that your interpretation of those events will be unique.

Be Thoughtful About the Factors

Once we understand that many factors go into the process of a listener’s creation of a meaning and that listeners will arrive at many different meanings from a given story, then we can be more thoughtful about the problems of applied storytelling.

In entertainment storytelling, the engagement of your listeners is paramount. You want listeners to find your stories meaningful, but you are generally not invested in a single meaning.

But in applied storytelling, the particular meaning your listeners arrive at is as important to you as their engagement with the story.

Not an Arrow in a Target, but Ripples in a Pond

If you assume that telling Story #1 will automatically cause listeners to arrive at Meaning A, then your communication will fail for many of your listeners. Why? You will not be paying attention to all the factors under your control that tend to guide people toward a particular meaning.

What are those factors? There are many. But they all affect the exact context in which the story is heard. They affect the listener’s relationships to the storyteller and to the events of the story.

All great applied storytellers make use of these factors, at least unconsciously. Fortunately, everyone can learn to be aware of these factors. With experience, you can learn how changing each one of them affects the listener’s likelihood of creating a particular meaning. It is even possible to master the adjustment of several factors simultaneously.

But first – and foremost – you need to understand that stories convey meaning only by influencing the individual meaning-creation decisions of your listeners. This is an artistic process, not a mechanical one.

In even the most matter-of-fact environment, stories “mean” by initiating a complex, interactive series of communicative events. That complexity is the source of the power of stories. If you use creativity and thoughtfulness about the process, you can fully unleash that timeless power.

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