The Role of the Storyteller

Alongside more formal programmes, i increasingly find value in facilitated open sessions, ‘sense making’ spaces where people can bring their own agenda: this piece explores the role of the Social Storyteller in facilitating these spaces. I have written more widely around this, but here am capturing a view specifically about how the Storyteller helps the community to find the narrative, and how they avoid influencing or owning that story.

The primary role of the Social Storyteller is to ‘create space’, to welcome the group, to establish the nature of this as ‘white space’, and to articulate the sense that this is ‘outside’ the everyday. In other words, to encourage people to leave behind what they already are sure about, and instead use this space to explore new ideas and perspectives. To bring a lens of curiosity and openness.

They Storyteller must also hold the edges of the space: whilst ‘sense making’ spaces are broad, they are not endlessly so. To hold the edges may mean steering a group into, or out of, a topic, and also to occasionally add a provocation into the mix. Typically this provocation will come when we observe that participants are commenting on an issue, but failing to move beyond ‘observation’ into ‘analysis’ and ‘potential alternatives/futures’. Similarly, if the group is starting to reinforce a central or existing narrative, where each subsequent comment closes off curiosity, then the Storyteller may wish to make that clear, and hence open the space more widely again.

Through the course of the conversation, the Storyteller will help a group to find the threads: where they use different words, which themes tie the stories together. This is not always clear, and even when it is so, we must be conscious of not getting trapped within a primary interpretation e.g. the first ‘truth’ we find may not be the broadest truth we desire. A storytelling group should re-tell and re-interpret narratives, not fall into the quickest or easiest interpretation.

In parallel with this notion of ‘finding threads’, the Storyteller should also act to remind groups that all ‘meaning’ is held in common, in other words that within a group we find ‘meaning’, and convince ourselves that it is universal, whilst in fact it is not. So partly we must find meaning ‘within’ a coherent group, but also connect between different groups, and into different spaces, some of which may be less comfortable than our own.

As well as these things that a Social Storyteller should do, there are a range of things that they should NOT do!

A Storyteller is there to facilitate, not to dominate, or even necessarily to participate (unless that is explicit). Essentially the role is to enable stories to be told, and to provide a layer of meta-cognition about what is being said. They should not directly respond nor seek to colonise a story space with a formal perspective e.g they should not impose the Organisational narrative into an open discussion.

The Storyteller can guide, but they do not own and control: the story being told is not theirs. It’s not a free gift to pick up, but rather something to be shaped and shared by those who tell it: we must be aware that ‘claiming’ the story for the Organisation may betray the very trust and coherence through which it was created.

The Storyteller should not deny or dispute the validity or truth of a story (unless by exception, or to safeguard), because it is not their story: if we are exploring the range of divergent truths that exist within a community, we must recognise that these will not be our own stories mirrored back to us. Some stories may be uncomfortable, but as equally true as our own.

Finally: the role of the Social Storyteller is not to help the group to reinforce a truth, but rather to help them keep searching. It is not a role that is inherently comfortable, but is hopefully one that will help a community or group to find value.

If you are interested more broadly in Storytelling, i have written widely on this on the blog, as well as a whole chapter in the Social Leadership Handbook (which had an original working title of ‘The Storytelling Leader!).

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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