The power of story

There is a reciprocal relationship between listening and telling a story. You can compare listening to a bowl and storytelling to the liquid that gets poured into the bowl; just as the bowl gives the liquid its shape, the listening is what gives the story its shape. But, without that listener, it is often hard to find the truth at the heart of a story.

I am reminded of the discovery of my own story. I got a degree in business and went to work for a bank in Hong Kong. After four years of working there, I announced to my boss “I’m not sure what I’ll do next, but I know it’s going to be creative and meaningful.” I flew to New York and got a job working with Oscar-nominated documentarian Murray Nossel on the distribution of his film.

After a couple of months, Murray told me about Narativ, a company that he and Paul Browde, a psychiatrist, founded back in 2000. He handed me a shoebox filled with a bunch of papers in no particular order. I took it home and found a method in that shoebox — a way for me to talk about my own experiences of growing up in France with a French father and American mother, going to business school but really wanting to go into film, and now finally getting into the creative arts. Organizing these ideas written on scraps of paper gave me a way to communicate what was important to me. So at first, there was something very practical about the Narativ method for me. Then I saw the power of delivering this method to people to illustrate how they can share their own stories.

In 2007, my team and I at Narativ began running workshops in New York City every month using our unique methodology to train individuals how to listen and tell personal stories and providing contexts where such stories can be shared with others. I’d see a group of strangers walk into a room at 10am on a Sunday and walk out at 5pm, feeling a profound sense of connection to their fellow workshop participants and a renewed sense of who they were as individuals. In our daily lives, we barely listen to those we love, so to have a room full of people rapt, listening to you tell your tale and bringing their own experiences to that listening/telling relationship provides a powerful bond.

Our methodology caught on with organizations such a Human Rights Watch and UNICEF and Fortune 500 companies around the world. In workshops, master classes, and storytelling nights, people were looking forward to listening to personal stories told first hand by the people who lived them. Why? Because it conjured memories they’d forgotten about, made them relate to people they didn’t know before they heard their stories, always reconnecting them to their own lives. This is the Narativ community, one in which people are connected by listening and by telling personal stories.

Since then, we have had the privilege to work with thousands of people all over the world to support them in listening to and telling personal stories. I experienced firsthand how people’s stories brought them together, cutting across gender, culture, education, career, titles, labels, preconceptions, assumptions, and even language, while also unlocking a creative well inside the storyteller.

Last April, a colleague asked the question: “Why don’t we share these stories beyond the workshops? Could we give people the opportunity and the platform to share their stories and connect with listeners on a broader level?” We all looked at each other and quickly agreed that this was worth looking into. We all had our stories of how we got to Narativ and we had spent more than a decade listening to people share their personal, powerful tales. And these stories were not living up to their full potential just being shared in our workshops. They could live and grow and change beyond these walls.

And, thus, began a media entity, separate from our business with clients. Our intention is that the voices we bring to the world will offer listeners a deeper connection with their own lives, causing them to reflect and share their own experiences.

Our first podcast, Memory Motel, is about how memories are the basis of the stories we tell ourselves and others. But, memory can be flawed, protective, or imagined. In our first episode, Rachel Stephenson tells the story of the impact of the loss of her mother when she was very young. The story of how she remembered her mother and what actually happened and the impact the memory had on her father. Her relationship with her father changes and evolves from a tragic story of loss and anger to a story of empathy and understanding. As you listen to the episode, your own memories of your family, loss, grief, love, will come rushing back, as they did with me. And this is just the first.

Most people whose stories we’ve helped shape in our workshops did not see themselves as performers, writers or storytellers before working with us, but by the time they’d generated one story, they wanted to keep going. With the podcast, we’ve experienced the same thing in asking regular people with compelling stories to share their experiences.

When each person goes into our sound booth, there’s a sense of urgency in their voice.

Then a calm comes over them as our producers listen to them. They tell their story. They laugh, they cry.

They come out of the sound booth, and they seem at peace, content. They’ve told their story. They have connected with us and, soon, the world.

I’m excited to bring those voices and communities to you, so that together we can create a world connected by people listening and telling personal stories.

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