Why I Follow Somerset Maugham’s Three Storytelling Rules

to tell a story.010It’s no secret that I’m leery (and weary) of posts entitled The Six Secrets to Storytelling Success, The Seven Rules, The Three Best Practices, The Twenty Must-Dos… or that I’m dismayed by folks trade-marking storytelling processes and terms that are, actually, just plain old common sense and age-old practices. When people ask me for rules, for best ways, for the one true answer, I quote Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Indeed, the twenty some years I spent as a classroom teacher and the many more than that as a writer have taught me that no one-size-fits-all in storytelling, no set of rules guarantees success, no short cut is worth taking in story-work-for-change.  Each story, each storytelling has its own set of rules–to get it right, listen hard enough to the variables: the storytelling moment and audience and context and need and elements of story, and what they do to one another.  And that takes practice, the building of skills and the exercise of patience and effort. Each time you tell a story is the first time.

And here’s another thought some folks won’t like: I think nonprofits should almost always do their own storytelling, not hire out, at least not during the first, formative steps of the telling. It is through the very act of sharing and listening to story that we learn deep truths about our work and ourselves and the people/places we are trying to help. When we are engaged in authentic, ethical story sharing and story listening together, we make ourselves vulnerable, build trust, open to empathy and understanding. The more skilled we all get at listening to story and to telling authentic stories ethically, the better work we’ll do in our change efforts. to tell a story.012

That’s why I’m grateful for the forward-looking Vermont Community Foundation and Ben and Jerry’s Foundation who sponsored the latest series of  ten storytelling workshops I’ve put together for Vermont nonprofits. My hat is off to them for helping their grantees (and applicants) with far more than grants–i.e. some theory, tools, skills and a bit of practice with storytelling through exercises designed to illuminate the power of stories to teach us and connect us and inspire us and lead to action.  And the half-day workshops are free.  Imagine that.

As a result, we’ve reached scores of tiny volunteer-based groups as well as branches of national organizations and taken the first steps to building a storytelling network among Vermont nonprofits. There’s no parachuting in to give a snappy presentation of the five steps to a perfect story then leaving these folks to sort it all out on their own (which in many cases would lead to abandoning storytelling altogether or settling for some slick version of a sort-of story). Instead we’ve designed a slate of workshops that build one to the next, aimed to provide a thorough grounding and practice in the art of storytelling and the many ways nonprofits can use story to serve their cause and community. And there’s follow-up support. It’s about these folks teaching and inspiring each other and putting together sound storytelling strategies they can actually follow. Daring to slow it down, go deep to achieve lasting results. Thank you, VCF & B &J, for getting it about story and the rules of storytelling.

So next time someone asks you what you know about storytelling?  I hope you’ll give them Maugham’s most excellent set of rules and then share a story and ask for one.

 

 

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