Events operate by stories.
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.”
—Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.
Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.
Events operate by stories
Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.
The promise of events springs from the reality that we are the stories we tell about ourselves. The stories that events tell and we internalize change us.
It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.
Some stories have a dark side. Hans Bleiker tells a story about a group of scientists who spent several years carefully researching how to maintain the health of a deer herd, and determined that some minor changes in state hunting regulations would be very effective. At a public hearing, their entire case was undermined in 15 minutes by the testimony of a guy who loudly protested that his great-grandfather had helped his father shoot his first deer, his father had gone with him to shoot his first deer, and he’d be damned if some bunch of scientists were going to stop him help his son to shoot his first deer.
It’s been hard to miss the deluge of books and articles pointing out (correctly) that presenters who tell relevant, well-told stories have far more impact on listeners than those who recite a litany of facts. It’s not surprising that the most popular and highly paid professional speakers are those with a vivid story to tell — one that often follows some variant of the hero’s journey
Stories have great power to change our minds. They can do wonderful things. Challenge our ingrained beliefs, make us aware of injustice, inspire us to be better human beings, and motivate us to act for the greater good.
Unfortunately, such power can also be used for evil. People can use stories to inflict great damage.
Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” has shaped U.S. welfare policy for 40 years. Chimamanda Adichie tells how childhood reading warps our view of the world. Stories of parents whose children developed the symptoms of autism soon after vaccination have led many people to not vaccinate their children, leading to the resurgence of preventable diseases even though scientific research has shown no connection between vaccination and autism.
Stories are dangerous, because, even with good intentions, stories can be wrong. And, more dangerously, they can be purposefully misleading. A child’s default belief is that stories they hear are true. We tend to carry that belief into adulthood despite increasing experience that stories can be seriously biased and deceptive. The terrible way in which it has recently become routine for authority figures to publicly lie in order to achieve their own objectives is leading to a world where “alternative facts” are becoming the norm.
Some stories have a dark side
Event planners often select and support presenters who get a platform to tell their stories to an audience. While acknowledging the power of stories, let’s not forget that they can evoke dark passions in those who hear them. As people who make events happen, we bear a responsibility to decide whether we want to tacitly support those storytellers among us who use stories for immoral and unethical ends.
Photo attribution: Flickr user campascca
I do something I’ve never done before
Did you ever stop talking for five days? In August, I did, for the first time in my life.
For five days, forty of us lived in silence, meditating in the Vipassana tradition. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phone, no internet.
Before this experience, I had never been silent for even one day of my life.
What happened next?
A totally unexpected outcome was that I fundamentally changed how I eat. Mindfully eating in silence for five days allowed me to learn how much my body really wants to eat. It turned out to be a lot less than I’ve been eating most of my life.
When I was younger, I could eat anything and not put on weight. At thirty, something changed, and I gradually became overweight. Over the years I tried various approaches to eating less. Most of my efforts had a temporary effect, but they were essentially efforts of will—always a struggle—and I remained at least ten pounds overweight.
Now, three months later, I am at my lowest weight in thirty-five years. My Smart Body Mass Index is now in the normal range. And, to my surprise, this practice remains easy for me to continue.
What can we learn from my experience?
Experiential learning is the most powerful kind of learning! Five days of mindful eating reprogrammed my lifetime pattern of applying external strictures — eating certain foods, avoiding others, disciplining myself to wait until a set time to eat, etc. — to one where I eat from what Jan Chozen Bays, MD calls a sense of cellular hunger rather than other kinds of hungers such as eye, nose, mouth, stomach, mind, and heart.
Five days experiencing what I mindfully wanted to eat trumped years attempting to teach myself what and how to eat.
What else did I learn?
Prolonged sitting mediation — focusing on my breath for forty-five minutes many times each day — was a new experience for me. I became aware over and over again of the games my mind continually plays. Sometimes I found my thoughts drifting to scenes from the past or imagined situations in the future; sometime I found myself in a blurred dreamlike state. Each time I noticed my mind straying, I brought my awareness back to my breath.
As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this, but the practice has fascinating benefits. Besides the mindful eating outcome, I feel more connected to my experience of the world, more able to flow with what happens, more in touch with the suffering and impermanence in my life. The latter may seem an unlikely benefit, but seeing more clearly what exists (we all suffer, we all die) is transformative.
A lot of people think that meditation is about attaining a blissful state. That’s not the whole picture for me, though there were wonderful moments during my five days, especially while experiencing the beauty around me. Rather, being closer to what life is actually about — both the joy and the suffering — is what the retreat gave to me.
In addition, the retreat reinforced my experience that we are the stories we tell ourselves — further deepened by the observation that we’re telling these stories to ourselves in our own minds all the time!
My retreat experience was fascinating, hard and wonderful, and I now plan to participate in one or two retreats a year. I recommend the experience, even though yours will surely be different from mine.
Many in the event industry exhort us to “make our conferences memorable” but are short on specifics. Well, disasters are good. Meeting your life partner at the party guarantees memorability, but is hard to engineer. And a massive spectacle sometimes works (though it costs a bundle).
Here’s another way.
Start with a truism
“We are the stories we tell ourselves.”
It’s enough of a truism to be turned into a TED Talk. I prefer a slightly different formulation:
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves.”
The stories we tell, our stories, are central to who we are and who we become. Our stories, large or small, don’t really fully exist until we tell them to others. In the telling, we learn who we are.
In my experience, while telling ourselves stories has a certain power, telling them to others is the core process by which we become who we are.
The experience of becoming who we are. That’s worth remembering. That’s memorable!
Make your conference memorable
Give your attendees time and a supportive conference environment to tell their stories to each other. No, providing an end-of-day mixer with loud music won’t work. Instead, use conference process like roundtables to draw out and share attendee stories, provide plenty of time for peer-led follow-up discussions, and don’t scrimp on the conference white space.
Once you give your attendees an opening to tell their stories to others, they will run with it, and wonderful things will happen. They won’t be wonderful in the way that big spectacle can sometimes be wonderful; they will be wonderful because they will be personally meaning building and consequently memorable.
Disasters and over-the-top production can make conferences memorable, but they usually score poorly on ROI. Try my way.
Photo attribution: Flickr user dpnsan
How can you learn from personal stories?
After I met Glenn Thayer on a warm Colorado evening a couple of months ago, I kept remembering a story that he told me about a celebrity charity event he was emceeing. This puzzled me, because the story had no obvious connection to my life or work.
Recently, I began to understand why his yarn kept popping into my head. I’ll post about Glenn’s story another time, but today I’ll write about how to learn from stories like Glenn’s.
Listening to personal stories
Every day, the people in your life tell you personal stories. They might be a family anecdote, a play-by-play reenactment of last night’s game, a tale of frustration at work, or a child’s outpouring about an incident on the school playground: a unique stream of the tragic, the lighthearted, the passionate, and the mundane. Most of these stories pour through your consciousness, hover there for moments, and are gone. A few resonate in some mysterious way and stay with you for years. All of them influence you. And some of them can teach you valuable lessons—if you pay attention to them.
How can you learn from personal stories?
Some personal stories, have straightforward learning implications. For example, a relative’s harrowing tale of a ruined vacation due to last minute illness may encourage us to take out travel insurance, or a friend’s clear description of diagnosing a car problem may illuminate what a timing belt is and does. And here are some more, often poignant examples of learning from stories.
But what about stories that teach us important lessons in subtler ways? Sometimes we hear stories that touch us, but we don’t really know why. What can we learn when this happens?
If you are interested in exploring what you can learn from such stories, here are the three steps you must take. They may seem strange suggestions, but I vouch for their effectiveness if you are prepared to do the work.
Notice the important story
Unfortunately, there’s no universal metric that can tell us whether a particular story can teach us something that matters, because every story is contextually unique and each of us has unique lessons to learn. So, if you hear so many stories, how do you know which ones are important?
There isn’t a rational way to notice important stories. Instead, you need to cultivate your emotional intelligence, or, if you prefer the term, your intuition.
Important stories affect you at an emotional level. You live in a world that pays lip service to the rational, but, unless you’re a sociopath, you have emotional responses to your life experiences. The trick to noticing that a story is important to you is to detect that you have responded emotionally in a surprising way. An important story evokes an emotional response, and if that response does not make sense to you, there is gold you can mine from it. Glenn’s Colorado story brought up an emotional response that I didn’t understand. Noticing was all I needed to proceed to the next step.
Capture the story
Perhaps it’s my age, but I find that if I don’t capture the essence of the story so I can recall the details, the tale I’ve heard disappears, like smoke, from my memory within a day, never to reappear. So I carry around 3 x 5 cards to jot down stories and ideas I have. (I’ve also started using Simplenote on my iPad for the same purpose.) When I heard Glenn’s story, I wrote “Do you have a handler?” on a card, which was enough for me to remember his story until I got home and added the phrase plus a few notes to a file I keep of potential topics for blog posts. Now the heart of his story was captured in a place where I would see it weekly whenever I was thinking about a blogging topic.
Tease out the meaning
Teasing out the meaning of an important story is a creative exercise. When I came across Glenn’s story in my blog post pile last week, I decided to spend some time musing about it. I’ve found that the two best ways for me to go into a creative place involve either:
- Performing mindless physical activity, like stacking wood, going for a walk, washing dishes, or taking a shower.
- Listening to loud music that I like.
while daydreaming about the topic in question.
Your methods for stimulating your creative juices are probably different. When you’re ready, find a time and place when you won’t be interrupted and apply them. Here are some tips for making the most of your creative exploration of the story:
- Relax, don’t have any preconceptions about what might happen—watch and listen to whatever drifts through your mind.
- Don’t censor thoughts and images that come up, just make note of them. I like to have a pen and paper available to record what comes up.
- Concentrate on the non-rational; you can unleash your analytical powers once your daydreaming phase is over.
- Don’t expect to unlock all the secrets of the important story in one session. You may want to return to it in a few days to see what’s jelled, what seems important, and what now feels superficial.
I’ve learned some important things about myself and my life by examining stories that have power for me. I hope the techniques I’ve described are useful for you too.
How do you make sense of important personal stories you’ve heard? Do you have examples you’d like to share?
Image attribution: Flickr user maxpower