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Traffic, Diversity, and Remembering to Tell Stories

I’m moving back to my beloved Massachusetts after 4 1/2 wonderful years away. This article continues the list of storytelling lessons I’ve learned from Oklahoma. (If you missed part 1, it is at

Lesson 5: Go Where There’s Less Traffic

About six months after I moved to Oklahoma, I had occasion to return to a major East Coast city. I rented a car and, for the first time in all those months, had to navigate intense traffic.

After driving just a few minutes, I noticed how tense I felt. I noticed how alert I had to be, how aware of people on all sides, and how much effort it took to figure out where these winding streets actually went.

I realized that I had not felt this feeling in my body for six months.

I thought to myself. “I never want to feel this again on a daily basis!” I realized that being in less-crowded places actually improves my quality of life.

What’s the lesson for storytellers? Well, it’s tempting to look at popular storytellers and to decide to do what they do. But those venues are already crowded. Those styles of telling are already spoken for. That’s where the traffic is.

In other words, the decision to imitate others – in style or in marketing – takes me away from the wide open spaces.

The good news is that there are many, many people who have never heard of storytelling; they represent vast new audiences. There are also an infinite number of ways to tell stories, some of which are going to be natural and easy for me. So I always have the opportunity to be a storyteller in a rewarding, “low traffic” market.

Lesson 6: Don’t Believe the Appearance of Sameness

When I first moved to Oklahoma, my wife Pam was the pastor of a small church in Tulsa. Naturally, I went to the church every week and spent time at church outings with the 50 people who went there regularly. They were more Mid-Western and elderly than the folks I’d mostly been with in Boston, but I perceived them as a sweet, “plain vanilla” group of people.

One day, Pam came home with a story that the chair of the church board had told her about his father, who in the 1940′s had been a promising young baseball player.

In the story Pam told me, the board chair’s father had been offered a position on one of the Boston Red Sox farm teams. Naturally, he planned to accept this incredible opportunity for a poor boy from Oklahoma.

Soon after the letter from the Red Sox, though, he got a form letter from the government saying, “Uncle Sam needs you – to be a soldier.”

Reading the letter, his mother said, “We Indians are warrior people. When our people need us, we must go.”

And so this man’s father enlisted in the army instead of the Red Sox.

And hearing the story, I said to Pam, “He’s Native American?”

And she said, “Yes, he’s Choctaw.” Seeing the stunned look on my face, she said, “You know his wife, right? She’s Chickasaw. And you know the other elders….” She named them each, then listed their tribes: “Cherokee, Sac and Fox, Osage….”

I thought about all those people that had appeared so “plain vanilla” to me. I realized that, just a little below the surface, they had a deep connection to a very different culture.

I had been mislead by their conformity to the standard way that we’re expected to dress, speak and act in the contemporary U.S. I had assumed that they had several generations of assimilation behind them, not just one.

I had known, of course, that Oklahoma had been Indian Territory until its statehood. I knew that many tribes had been given reservations here after being forcibly and even violently removed from other parts of the country.

Yet I still assumed that these life-long Oklahomans were culturally much more homogeneous than they were. I had been fooled by the appearance of sameness that our society demands of people.

As a storyteller, it’s tempting to assume that “sameness” goes below the surface. In fact, different people have strongly different backgrounds and individual characteristics. They have different paces and experiences. They have different sensory modes in which they are likely to imagine. They have different interests.

All in all, they all have different needs that can be met by storytelling. This is another reason for me as a storyteller NOT to try to fit into an existing mold. Instead, I can notice my individual strengths. Only then can I offer these strengths to the people who need them; in other words, only then can I market what I truly have to offer.

And only then can people who are hungry for my strengths have a way to meet their needs through my work.

Lesson 7: Communicate Through Stories

The first widely distributed motion picture in the United States to be written, directed, and co-produced entirely by Native Americans was called “Smoke Signals.” (

There’s a scene in Smoke Signals in which a young, athletic man asks whether he should let his nerdy would-be companion come with him on an important journey.

He asks his mother while she is in her kitchen making fry bread, that fried-dough staple.

Instead of answering him, she begins talking about her fry bread and what parts of the recipe she learned from her own mother, from her mother-in-law and from her grandmother. She describes how large numbers of people have been involved in helping her know when her recipe needed to be a little less sweet or a little more cooked. When she finishes with this monologue about her history with fry bread, her son says, “So you think I should let him come with me.”

His mother says, “Oh no, I wouldn’t say that. But if you do go, please come back.”

As this scene demonstrates, there is a tradition in Native American cultures of using stories as a way of imparting advice, knowledge and point of view – without overtly stating an opinion. Many people raised in Oklahoma (even those who do not have native heritage) come to expect that, if you tell a them a story in conversation, you intend it to carry a personal message.

It’s an odd thing that I, as a storyteller, need to be reminded to tell stories, but I’ve been on the boards of storytelling organizations that, during crisis-level discussions, forgot the power of storytelling – especially when tempers heat up and the stakes are high.

Further, when coaching storytellers on their publicity, I often find them using the bullet-point, glossy brochure copy that is so prevalent everywhere else in the world – instead of telling stories about their work.

Oklahoma has reminded me that, when we need to persuade or inform, we can do so respectfully and powerfully by using story.

We can use story this way in our storytelling organizations, in our life at home, in our work – and in our marketing, to help potential listeners get an imagined experience of what it would be like to be the beneficiary of our storytelling.

Keeping the Lessons, Even as I Return East

These seven lessons have changed my telling and my way of presenting myself as a storyteller to the world. I am eager to return to my beloved Massachusetts and to establish yet another new life there – a life that will be enriched by my Oklahoma experiences.

I hope you, too, can find your “inner Oklahoma” and let it guide you in becoming ever more the storyteller that you alone are capable of becoming.

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