This is the third in a series of blogs inspired by Pope Francis’ dream that we will learn how to become a church that journeys together, with Christ. The Pope often calls for us to learn the art of accompaniment. Part of this art is the ability to share our lives through storytelling. At its heart, the Synod seems to be about providing time and space to share our stories with one another, to meet one another along this road, and to hear in each story the presence of God-with-us. As the Synod documents make clear, this is not a fact-finding, data-gathering enterprise. It’s a sacred way of living, where the Spirit is the protagonist…and the plotlines of our stories reveal the hand of God. So how do we tell our stories? Read on for some hints on the art of storytelling.
If you’ve been following my contributions to the blogosphere, you know that I love words, and I am keen on making sure we agree on what words mean. So in keeping with that premise, let’s define what storytelling is. Storytelling is an interactive art. It intends to foster an exchange between teller and listener(s). Its medium is words and actions like inflection, tone, facial expression, bodily movements, and gestures. These actions are carefully designed to reveal the images within the story while inviting listeners to use their imaginations to enter the story. It’s an art, but it’s an art we can all learn.
With that definition in mind, let’s take a look at the elements of a good story. Why? Because the Synod listening sessions are designed to be about sharing our stories, re-counting what we know, gleaned from our experiences, and honing what we know through our sharing the stories of these experiences. And because, embedded in our stories is the whisper of the Spirit, a whisper that yearns for us to make space for it to be heard. That space can be created by the thoughtful crafting of our stories so they are told in such a way that others can connect to us, through them.
Imagine you are attending a listening session as part of the Synod. What will you be listening to? The process invites us to share stories that recount our experiences; not lectures, not diatribes; not data or surveys; not lists; not single sentences…stories. That means we need to know how to craft a story:
There are four support structures, pillars if you will, of an effective story: people, place, purpose and plot. Here’s a brief description of how each functions in a story. See the endnotes for a place to go and learn more![i]
People: The characters in your story provide listeners emotional connection points. People connect first with people. So as you think about your story, who are the key players? And what do listeners need to know about them in order to connect to them? How do you as the storyteller connect to these people? The word to remember regarding the people in your story is connection.
Place: This is where the story happens. It grounds your story in a real place, in real time. The people and the actions happen somewhere, and that place may well provide plenty of insight, connection points, and intellectual and emotional context. Think for a minute: there’s a big difference between an interaction in the grocery store, in the car, in a living room or in a church. Place matters so be sure to describe it so that your listeners “go there”. The word to remember here when crating your story is authenticity.
Purpose: Have you ever been listening to someone tell a story and find yourself asking “What’s the point?” The story seems to ramble, has way too many details and sidelights, and takes too long. Skilled storytellers figure out the purpose of their story…the point they want their listeners to take away. Define the purpose clearly for yourself, and then make sure that all the other elements you choose to include in the story enhance the possibility that your purpose is actually accomplished. If you find yourself taking a really long time, needing too many words, going down the side roads, go back and redefine the purpose. Then edit the story so that the purpose is clear. The word to remember here is meaning.
Plot: Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs movement, structure, and rising and falling emotion. Something needs to happen in the story, and the listener needs to be able to “take the trip” with the storyteller. Choose verbs that pull the listener in. Here’s just one example of a verb choice that makes a difference. I can say, “I went to the meeting.” Or I can say, “I meandered my way to the meeting.” Different feel, different engagement level. Remember, the purpose of the plot is engagement.
So there you have a tiny primer on telling a compelling story. Remember, the Synod invites is to share our stories. It therefore invites us to develop this skill as part of learning how to be a synodal people, a people “on the journey” together. Our stories will create our connections and our stories taken together, will reveal the whispers of the Spirit. Our stories, like Jesus’ parables, will take us from our humanity into divinity…if we practice the art of storytelling.[ii]
[i] For more on the art of storytelling, see https://museuniversity.org/courses/38967/lectures/554711 Accessed 11/2/21
[ii] Leonard DeLorenzo has written a book entitled Witness in which he helps Catholics tell their faith stories. His steps can be found here: https://www.leonardjdelorenzo.com/witness Accessed 11/2/21