The most important person who will ever hear your story
Part of a storyteller's job is to think about other people.
How do you want to the reader or listener to feel?
What do you want them to do, after listening?
What do they need to hear?
These are all valuable, valid questions. Especially if your story is purposeful: if you want to people to do business with you, or you want to help them in some way, or both.
But before we start sharing our stories for other people to hear, there's an important -- but often missed -- step in the storytelling process we should take.
Before we start sharing our stories with others, we must be active listeners for our own stories.
Let me explain.
Whether you know it or not, you are already a storyteller.
We all are.
Story is how our brains work.
Stories are how we make sense of the world. They're how we understand ourselves, others, and the world around us.
So whether you know it or not, whether it’s written or not, said aloud or not, you are engaged in story.
Recognizing this means we have an opportunity to work more creatively with our beliefs, assumptions, worldview and mindset.
It also means we can become better, more constructive and positive storytellers by considering our own stories more carefully.
In other words, you can help yourself be a better storyteller, simply by paying more attention to your own stories.
A friend shared the above quote with me recently, and I was really struck by it.
It is a reminder that if you want to help others, you really do have to help yourself first. Of course I don't mean you must be perfect before helping others -- we'd never do anything if that was the case.
I mean that it's worth examining your own story before trying to use it for a bigger purpose.
Be compassionate. But be a critical thinker, too.
Don't take your own stories spin away without notice.
Be an active listener. Notice them. Observe them.
And sometimes, stop them in their tracks.
I'm not exempt. As much as I want to help people tell their stories, I have to continue to write and re-write my own.
I'll give you an example.
There's this old script I hear sometimes about my heart.
It usually happens when I'm in the midst of something physically challenging. Maybe I’m sparring in the boxing ring and starting to feel really really exhausted. Or about to take on a big overhead lift with heavy weight.
And an old story echoes back inside me. It says something like:
"You can’t do this. Don't you know you you’re weak? Your heart might not be up to it."
What do I do when I hear that story?
I give it a moment. I hear and recognize it. I know it’s an old script.
And then in an instant I can simply say, "Okay, this is a different script we’re working with now."
I remind myself I’m strong and capable and I move on.
I know my own bullshit when I hear it. (At least some of the time.)
But I have to keep showing up as a listener if I’m going to be a good storyteller.
If I’m going to be vulnerable and share personal stories, if I’m going to be authentic in my writing, I have to keep asking myself, “What’s the story here?"
You can do this too. Here's how.
How to be a listener for yourself: an exercise
The shape that your story takes and its impact on others — the message it imparts, the emotions it sparks, etc. — depends on how you first choose to see it.
It’s a good idea to spend some time with your story as a listener. Yes, it's a good idea to think about your audience. Imagine how other people will feel when they hear your story. Think about what you want them to do after they hear it. Write and speak with your audience in your mind and heart.
But don't just think about what they will hear.
Show up and be your own best listener, first.
Here's how to practice this:
First: Write down the story you want to tell, simply on a page. Don’t worry about getting it written perfectly.
Then, read it to yourself.
Using your journal or notebook, answer the following questions:
1. How does your story make you feel?
2. What are the lessons or messages in the story?
3. What does it inspire you to do differently now, in your own life?
4. What rules (written or unwritten) does it contain? For example — assumptions about how the world works, rules about what you must or must not do, expectations of other people?
5. Is there anything in this story that could be written another way? For example, are there some details you chose to exclude that could change the meaning of the story? Is there something that could be re-written as joyful instead of tragic?
6. (The biggest and most important one!) Are you really saying what you want to say? Is there something in the story that doesn’t feel right or authentic?
Listen to your heart. You don’t have to share everything right now. You don’t have to reveal it all. You can still be authentic and share some things and not others.
Storytelling isn't just about what you're saying in front of others. It's also about what you're saying to yourself.
Even if no one else is around to hear it, you're here.
What story will you tell yourself, today?