Over the years, Ive helped many tellers improve a story by discovering what, for them, is the storys central meaning. In short, Ive helped them take a story and determine what they want it to communicate.
But what about the reverse process? If we start from a value that we want a story to convey, how do we find a story to do the job? This is the process Ive come to call Value Telling (TM). It has three major parts.
The first part of the process - easy to skip, but essential to an efficient use of your time - is to think carefully about the value you want to convey. (In this article, Ill focus on values, but a similar process works with a concept, lesson, or any form of idea.)
Suppose the value we want to explore through stories is cooperation. Begin by talking about what cooperation means to you. For example, are you thinking of willing cooperation, as on a joint venture? Or are you imagining cooperation between folks who might tend to think of each other as competitors or adversaries?
Go on to list the particulars you might want to communicate about cooperation. For example, you might come up with a list something like this:
Cooperation involves giving up something to gain something.
By cooperating, we become more powerful.
Cooperation leads to a life based on respect, love, and even joy.
Cooperation with the wrong people or institutions eats away at integrity.
The more pieces you can recognize of what cooperation means to you, the easier it will be to come up with stories.
To scan for memories, take each item on your list, and ask yourself one or more of these questions (a listener may be valuable here):
What happened to you, to cause you to value this?
How did you first learn about this value?
Where were you when you first discovered this value? Where were you living? Working (or studying)?
What strengths, successes, difficulties or failures led you to adopt this value?
Was there a time this value seemed no longer useful? What happened to cause you to retain or re-adopt it?
You may have more than one answer for several of these questions. For example, I can think of at least three different times I learned the value of keeping those I coach in charge of the goals of a coaching session. Dont worry whether an episode really answers a question. Youre just looking for episodes that come to mind in response to a question. Later you can decide which episodes really fit.
On the other hand, the first episode you thought of may compel you. If you feel strongly about it, stay with it. Tell it fully to a partner. Get appreciations. If it seems at all promising, tell it again.
To scan for images, have someone read you an item from your list. Then notice whatever association or image comes into your mind. Tell it aloud, whether it makes sense to you or not. You may come up with a memory, an image from a story youve heard, or an image that your mind has created. By telling it aloud, you will almost always find yourself with something interesting - and will, in time, realize why it relates to the value. (This process was created by Pam McGrath for our workshop on Finding the Sacred in Stories.)
Once you have a memory or an image, youll likely be on more familiar storytelling ground. Tell your memory or image, get appreciations, find its MIT for you, retell. Repeat until satisfied.
There is an extra step, however, to make sure the story remains relevant to value youve chosen for it. After you tell your image or memory aloud a time or two, ask yourself, What is the story of cooperation in this story? In other words, what are the beginning and ending states of this story with regard to cooperation? Then find the episodes that most clearly embody this progress and its turning points.
Ive begun doing 1-day workshops in the corporate world, helping executives embody their values in stories. Ive been able to lead them through a short form of the process described above. But this subject really deserves a full weekend. So Ive set up a first-ever Value Telling (TM) weekend on the oceanside in Scituate, Massachusetts. (For more information, email, call or write.)
If you have experimented with this process - or another one for coming up with stories to express values - Id love to hear about your experiences!