From Trouble to Struggle

 If you want to tell a story from your life, Donald Davis says: look for trouble. I've been talking with workshop participants lately about person, place, and problem as a basic set of necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) story elements.(1) The trouble comes with this word, "problem." Sometimes we tell stories that have an obvious problem, where we or the protagonist encounter an obstacle, barrier, or a mean old villain. If all stories had obvious villains, it would be easier to develop them as stories! But much of the time it's hard to identify exactly what the problem is, especially if you're doing something like telling a story related to your career, your path to success, or your organization's successes or challenges. Sure, you know you need some trouble to keep the audience interested, but is it really okay to talk so openly about a problem? If you or your organization has faced a serious problem, then you might not feel comfortable talking about it. Let's face it, the things that get most humans and organizations into real and serious trouble aren't polite dinner conversation. 

However, it's vital that a storyteller take risks. It's vital that the tale contains tension. Even relatively small obstacles in life, like not knowing what major to choose or being unsure of which grant to apply for, can make for good stories. The trick is that trouble has to be faced and amplified, resisted or engaged, so that trouble becomes struggle.

Trouble has to become Struggle.

For a story to be powerful and meaningful, the troubles you are facing have to increase in intensity in ways that correspond meaningfully with your mission and/or connect meaningfully with your audience. I'll start with a fun example and then take on something more serious.

Alumnus Daniel Burkhalter (MS/LIS) once told a story at the annual Storytelling Festival about a time from his childhood when his family had a big square TV. He really wanted to watch it while his parents were away at church on Sunday nights. But every time he did, they would catch him--trouble! He discovered that they knew he had been watching because the TV was warm. And he came up with a plan, involving ice cubes, to cool down the TV so that they would not know if he had been watching--from trouble to struggle

Struggle is what happens when you dig in and do something about trouble. You either start digging your way out or digging your way in deeper--either way, your audience will want to know what happens next. If an organization faces a funding crisis, the story starts to take off when people pull together to try something new. If a library is devastated by a flood, the struggle to rebuild and the community that pulls together to make it happen are key to the story. 

Struggle is taking a risk in the face of trouble, and not knowing yet whether the risk will actually pay off. That's what helps to captivate an audience. That's also what shows commitment to your own ethics and ideals, without your having to explain them.

You either start digging your way out or digging your way in deeper.

So when you don't think you have a story to tell, look for a time of trouble when you took action. Whether that action had good or bad effects will determine whether the story is funny, inspiring, or a cautionary tale of what not to do. If you've ever had a difficulty and made a choice, you have a story to tell.

(1) inspired by a conversation in a recent podcast of The Moth on storytelling

Storytelling for Advancement

For those not in the know, Advancement was formerly Development, and Development was formerly Fundraising. And so fundamentally, when we talk about storytelling in advancement, we're talking about activities that help support fundraising. But names are important, and these name changes are meaningful in terms of what fundraising has come to mean over time. In the long term, fundraising means creating strong relationships and networks of relationships between people with different kinds of resources (time, money, information). These relationships are based on shared values, and the way we know that we share values is to tell each other stories.

In order to tell stories, you have to find stories. Over several years, I've come up with several kinds of stakeholders who may serve as sources of stories that advancement professionals and professionals in nonprofits more generally can try to find in, around, or about their organization.

And to hear a great story, you have to ask a good question. In campus fundraising, or perhaps for any program where people go through a process of enrollment/affiliation, learning, and departure/graduation, I've found that there are a range of questions that tend to elicit interesting stories.

When you ask those stakeholders about their positive experiences in the past or their aspirations for the organization for the future, you have an excellent chance of hearing really interesting stories about how organizations have real impact in people's lives. You have to get permission from the source of the story, of course, but retelling people's stories can be the most effective and efficient way to share the meaning of your work.

Here's a full set of slides on storytelling and advancement from a presentation from October 2016:

With big thanks to Hilary Pope ( who is my amazing graphic designer!

Ira Glass on Storytelling

These links are here as viewing shortcuts for my storytelling courses, but let me say that if you are interested in telling stories well, then this 4-part 17-minute-total set of videos featuring Ira Glass of This American Life is well worth your time.

Finding Stories to Tell

For the tenth year, nearly rounding out a decade, I am preparing to teach a graduate seminar in Storytelling. This course requires many kinds of skills, from public speaking to understanding audiences and much more, but the first skill that every student must acquire is the ability to find stories to tell. Specifically, for their first stories, each student must acquire the ability to find folktales. You could head to the local public library and browse the 398.2 section, or you could start online

With the task of finding folktales at hand, my students find that there are fewer excellent online resources for finding folktales than you might think. Those linked here offer good starting points because they have reasonable information documenting origins either as source notes or as annotations or because they situate tales in relation to each other.

You know you're ready to tell a story when you have found and read several versions of a folktale, understood its origins, considered the meaning(s) you hope to convey, and have begun to practice adapting the story in your own words and voice. If you can't find several versions of the same tale, it's still wise to seek out other stories on similar themes or collected from similar times and places or perhaps the same cultural group. Storytellers always hope to find tales with excellent source notes. A good source note tells you where the story comes from, gives you some sense of who owns the tale--culturally or individually--and lets you know where you could find out more about the story. It also gives you enough of the story of the story that you can borrow this information as you introduce the story you are telling.

Here's an exemplary source note:

Excerpted from Nursery Tales Around the World, selected and edited by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Stefano Vitale (for book contents and cover illustration, see
Source:  Americo Paredes, Folktales of Mexico.  Collected by Stanley L. Robe in Tepatitlan, Jalisco.  Told by Maria del Refugio Gonzalez.  Slightly retold with permission.
    Aarne and Thompson indicate variants of Tale Type 201555, The Goat who Would not Go Home, from Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Turkey, and Spanish America."  (Sierra 107)
Sierra, Judy, ed.  Nursery Tales Around the World.  Illus. Stefano Vitale.  New York:  Clarion, 1996.

And here's an example of a story shared online that comes from Virginia Hamilton's book The People Could Fly, but is shared without any citation or source note:

So research your stories, find the best source notes you can, attribute them to tellers or cultures of origin or any information you have about where the story comes from. It's fine to say "this story come from China," but it's so much more meaningful if you can indicate that "this story comes from a collection of stories called Stories from China that lacks any further details about origins." In the latter case, even if you leave off the explanation and just cite the source, you will be showing audience members who may be far more learned in the cultural origins of this story than you are that you are doing your best to cite sources and give acknowledgment to the sources of stories.

What Storytelling Is (Not)

Everybody is talking about "storytelling" lately...

When you hear the word "storytelling" so much, it seems like anything and everything can be storytelling. But it's important to define it so you know what I'm talking about. As written previously, I define storytelling as a dynamic exchange between the tale, the teller, and the audience. Understanding what is not storytelling--according to the definition I am developing based on the tradition of storytelling in librarianship--may help to further illuminate what storytelling is. But perhaps I should start with a quick definition of what storytelling is.

Stories are fascinating; lots of  people are deeply interested in story structure, but I focus most on storytelling. To understand the "telling" part, I see benefits to focusing on the dynamic of storytelling as a three-part interchange. We learn about listening from this model in ways that other models miss by focusing solely on the story. We also learn about generating collective meaning as well as divergent meanings, as when the teller or different audience members take a different meaning from the same story.

Trust is the central key to the dynamic interchange of storytelling. Not trust with one's life, perhaps, but trust in one's story and in the teller to take the audience on a journey and bring them safely home again. I usually think of three categories that help to further define what I mean by storytelling by way of contrast.

Storytelling is Not...

So what is not storytelling? To understand this, I suggest we examine three alternative pratices that often get lumped in with storytelling but which I see as distinct from storytelling.

1. Storytelling is not acting.
Though a great story is dramatic, storytelling is not acting because the teller is saying words that s/he wants to say, chose to say, intends to convey. The audience trusts that the storyteller is choosing to tell this story, not memorizing someone else's words. We may love actors, enjoy actors, swoon over actors, but we would be fools to trust them.

2. Storytelling is not comedy.
Storytelling may be uproariously funny, and some stories are deeply and inherently comedic, but humor and laughter can't be the storyteller's only goal. It might be better to say:  a storyteller is not a comedian. Laughter is amazing, it heals and unites people possibly like nothing else, but a storyteller's primary obligations are to the story and the audience rather than to comedy. Comedians may tell stories, but at the end of the day we know that they will break all the rules of trust if it gets a good laugh out of us. Or the rest of the audience, laughing at us.

3. Storytelling is not marketing.
I can see this being controversial, but the basic difference comes down, again, to trust. When someone you trust tells you a story that turns out to be all about selling something, you lose trust. If a storyteller is involved, then many attempts at marketing tend to distance that teller from the audience. The audience may love the products, may buy the products, may identify with the products, but that doesn't make for much of a story. It's just a purchasing transaction. Sometimes if the company hires a famous person as their storyteller, then there's a certain appeal, but at least some percentage of fans will question why this admired person is now selling them something when they did not do so before. There may be gaps here related to celebrity status that was always related to selling something, but in that case the story will tend to be minimal. The substance will most often be drama rather than a meaningful story.

I met a marketing professor recently and, when I told him I studied storytelling, he said "That's what I do! Marketing is storytelling!" I was taken aback, but I had time to think later about why I disagree on several counts. Marketing involves a kind of audience research that is qualitatively different that the audience familiarity and knowledge that storytellers cultivate. Storytellers want to share meaning with their audiences; marketers want to sell products. Again, some marketers want to sell meaningful products to their markets in meaningful ways, and that's great. But marketing doesn't qualify as storytelling because it flattens out that important third dimension of the triangle: the tale. The tale becomes a tool of transmission rather than an entity open to interpretation by both teller and audience.

Living stories...

A real storytelling interaction leaves the tale enlivened, changed, and perhaps enriched by every telling. You know you've heard a story when you were so engrossed you lost track of time and said "wow" the minute it was over. Even the teller has a feeling of connection and perhaps transformation based on the experience. Next post, I'll explore ideas about how various forms of communication (videos, blog posts, tweets) may or may not work to create a storytelling experience.

Story Across Organizations

What happens when stories are doing translation work between organizations? What does it mean when a story has to travel between different groups? How is inter-organizational storytelling a tool for coordination, collaboration, and leveraging collective resources? To understand how storytelling might work in these contexts, we have to back up and think about what these contexts are.

In my (frequently co-taught) course Youth Services Community Engagement , we talk extensively about how the purposes of various organizations serving youth in communities lead them to collaborate (or not). Examples of the kinds of organizations we discuss are: school and public libraries, homework help programs, Scouting and other clubs, LGBTQIA and allies organizations, religious youth groups, and crisis nurseries as well as organizations that serve youth by serving families such as food banks, shelters, etc.

When considering how different organizations are structured and function, there are a few key aspects that help facilitate inter-organizational collaboration:
  • Mission in action
  • Leadership styles and structures
  • Relative sizes and statuses of organizations
  • Cultures of organizations

Simply put, organizations with more similarities in more of these dimensions find it easier to collaborate. But that may also foster community imbalances or inequities, in that organizations may cluster together in groups because of shared or disparate organizational cultures. In my classes, I've found that students run into similar themes again and again related to these four areas, which I'll elaborate below.

Mission in action
How does this organization enact its purposes? Community organizations have missions, broad or specific, and mission matters. I use "mission in action" because the way that the mission and/or vision of the organization is written or told will definitely align with many of the activities of the organization. But not all. Because the day-to-day work is always evolving in response to community needs, and as those practices evolve the mission does too. Some call this "mission drift" in a negative sense, but I prefer to see it as a neutral process through which organizations may change over time or modify their practices to re-align with their core mission. When organizations share a mission that includes serving youth, then there is good potential for some form of collaboration. In this case, the story we tell about mission and the story our work tells are both highly valuable toward crafting a shared story about the value of the collaboration.

Leadership styles and structures
Leadership means both who's in charge and what governance structures (boards, advisors, etc.) determine who's in charge. Leadership may also involve issues like typical rates of turnover in organizational leadership. For a public library, leadership typically turns over infrequently, sometimes on the order of decades. For your average Boys and Girls club, leadership will turn over more frequently, due in part to the lower rates of pay available for directors. Leaders with similar styles will often work well together, and leaders with similar governance structures will have an easier time translating their shared missions into actions. Complexity or difference in any of these dimensions may make collaboration more challenging. How leaders or boards motivate people toward the shared mission is often most visible in the leaders' stories, and those stories offer much implicit information about leaders' styles.

Relative sizes and statuses of organizations
If a big organization (a school district) is coordinating with (or even hiring as consultants) a smaller organization (such as a tutoring company or a local homework help volunteer program), then there will be some need to translate between the two organizations. The smaller community organization is often lower status, and so they may need to attune to the purposes of the larger organization in their coordination work. Leaders of the smaller organization may find that they need to know many key players in the big organization while, at the same time, those in the big organization may know only one contact in the smaller organization. It may be that each organization has its own story, and that's fine as long as there's room for the other organization in each of their stories.

Cultures of organizations
Culture matters. Organizations have cultures. People have cultures. Sometimes organizations share cultural expectations with groups of people. In my own experience, I've found this to be the case in religious and LGBTQ organizations, respectively, where belonging means identifying collectively to some degree. Similar dynamics can arise with any group, of course, but sometimes culture matters more than other times. If two organizations have radically different cultures, they will need a very strong story of mission overlap to overcome potential barriers. Once trust is established, acknowledging cultural difference can help to nuance the story of the collaboration, but in the beginning collaborators often have to navigate cultural difference without these explicit acknowledgements. The story matters deeply here. That story needs to take account of the purpose of the collaboration, the benefits (shared goals or advantages of leveraging resources collectively), and the specific benchmarks for success. The story of the collaboration is perhaps most important when organizations have very different cultures.

When we talk about storytelling, often the hope is that story can be the conduit to exciting uncharted realms! I believe we often wish to be transported by story. But in establishing cross-organization collaborations, it is also important to be grounded by story in a well-evidenced way that fits with organizations' goals. Many of the claims made for the possibilities of storytelling will turn out to be wildly exaggerated if you don't also take these elements into account. Story can do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of creating meaning and bringing people together, but it helps to understand your context and analyze these aspects of organizations.

Dedicated to Kirstin Phelps, who did an absolutely masterful job of defending her dissertation proposal, a case study of inter-organizational collaboration with a focus on understanding leadership in multiple dimensions. Congratulations Kirstin! With special thanks to Sheila Bishop for sharing some of her forthcoming work on collaboration. Thanks also to my co-teachers Liz Hoiem (fall 2014) and Rachel Magee (fall 2015) for their inspiring collaborations in 490YS and elsewhere. And thanks to Danielle Chynoweth and Ashley Booth who were inspirational to me in developing this post.