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Notes on Storytelling

Draft, August, 2005

Marshall Ganz

Assisted by Adam Reich



            This story shall the good man teach his son;

                And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

                From this day to the ending of the world,

                But we in it shall be remember’d;

                We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

                For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

                Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

                This day shall gentle his condition:

                And gentlemen in England now a-bed

                Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

                And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

                That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


                                                                                Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3

                                                                                William Shakespeare



On St. Crispin’s Day eve, young King Henry faces his band of exhausted, discouraged Englishmen, outnumbered manifold by fresh French troops they must face in battle the next day. All night long, in disguise, he has wandered from camp to camp, listening to his men. He asks for a hand, climbs atop a cart, and begins to tell a story. But it is a new story, one in which and his men are the principal characters, and it is a story of hope. The outcome of the battle may well depend on the hope he can inspire, regardless of the odds. Perhaps their longbows could give them a tactical advantage over the mounted, armored French, but only if they have the courage to stand and fight. And that’s why King Henry has become a storyteller.


What Stories Do


Stories move us to act. Action requires risk and our willingness to take risks is rooted in our emotions, themselves rooted in our values. One way we can translate our values into the emotions that can inspire action is by telling a story.


How does this work?


When are confronted with new information, the novel, and the unexpected how do we know what to do?  To make sense of this new information we must interpret what it means: is it good for us, is it bad for us, is it irrelevant to us. One way we interpret new information is through our stories, stories that shape how we respond. 


Stories teach us how to act. Our stock of stories – stories of our own, our families, our friends, our communities, our faith traditions, our cultures, our nations – teach us how to act in the face of uncertainty. Should we be courageous? Should we withdraw? Should we take risks? Should we hedge our bets? But they not only teach us how we “ought” to act, they actually inspire us to act.  The inspiration – filling us with spirit – grows out of the fact that stories summon up emotions, emotions that are rooted in our values, or our moral convictions. We are talking about those values that move us, not those that ought to move us. As St. Augustine wrote, it is one thing to “know” the good, but another to “love” it – and it is our love, not our knowledge, that inspires us with the courage to act.


Storytelling is not an argument, an example, or a case in point. We can win an argument based on our logic, evidence, and data. We have proven the “truth” of our claim. But stories are neither true not false – they either work or they don’t work. And the test of whether a story works is in its effects: the feelings, the action, it evokes.


So how do stories lead to action?


Henry V’s challenge was to turn almost certain defeat into possible victory. Stories can both inspire us to face challenges with courage or they can discourage us, inspiring us to run.


Henry’s men had their stories: we are isolated on foreign shores with no hope of relief, they are at home; we are exhausted from days and weeks of struggle, they are fresh; we are but few, and they are many? In the grip of feelings of fear, isolation, and self-doubt, their side had all but lost?


What were Henry’s stories? We have a chance for immortality, we are a band of brothers, we are made of the stuff of heroes, we can choose to act bravely, to seize the opportunity. Inspired by feelings of hope, solidarity, and confidence, their side now had a chance. It was still just a chance, but it was one. His men now had a choice.


Think about the stories you call upon when faced with new challenges, dangers, sources of uncertainty in an already uncertain world? Are they stories of fear or stories of hope? Whose stories are they? And how do they influence your actions?


Stories of fear paralyze us, drive us to rationalize inaction, amplified by self-doubt and isolation, they can easily turn into despair. On the other hand, stories of hope inspire us, combined with confidence and solidarity, the can move us to act. And although we often think of stories as being about the past, we tell stories to influence the future. And sometimes the stories we tell are about the future.


Stories and Action


Those inhibitions that hold us back from acting when we “know” we should, are often rooted in stories we have heard or lived through earlier in our lives. Suppose that, as a four-year-old, you are playing on a swing-set at the park when a bigger kid tries to kick you off.  You run to your parent for help, but your parent laughs at the situation.  In that moment, as you trod back to the swing-set, angry and embarrassed, convinced that you parent didn’t care. By telling that story about your experience, you have learned the “moral” that “I’ve got to deal with my problems by myself.  I’ll sure never again ask anyone for help!” You may have learned to be aloof and counter-dependent when faced with adversity, a stance embedded in your story help denied. Your parent, no doubt, would tell a different story.


But our earliest memories – and our earliest emotional lessons – may not serve us well when we are grown.  Do we really think the emotional lessons we learn about the world as a three year old or in our adolescence – how to get attention, how to save face, how to win praise – continue to “work” as we deal with the challenges of our adult lives?  We can get trapped in self-reproducing loops: we act based on data filtered though patterns of belief that lead to actions which produce more data which reinforces those same patterns of belief.  This can help explain why sometimes we don't act in our “best interest” even when we “know” better.   


When we interpret new information – a pay cut, for example – with a story of fear based on past experience, we are unlikely to protest.  We may even tell ourselves we deserved the pay cut.  And when it happens again, we can reassure ourselves that we were right to be afraid all along. And if an organizer comes along and tells us that with a union we could keep our employer from cutting our pay, but we are still in the grip of fear, we’ll see the organizer as a threat,  her claims as suspect, and her proposals as hopeless.


Because stories are the principal way we organize information about action, stories that are rooted in fear, apathy, self-doubt, inertia, and isolation can actually keep us from seeing the data that doesn’t “fit” - like “oh yes . . . . well, that’s the exception that proves the rule.”


So how do we break out of a loop rooted in stories of fear and hopelessness to find the courage to risk action? If we wait to lose our fear, we may have to wait for a long, long time. But if we can find a way to act despite our fear, we may be able to do something.  One way to describe acting in spite of fear, not without it, is “courage” or having “heart”, as its Latin root, “cor”, indicates. And when we “encourage” others to act, we give them “heart” as well.


But how?  We need a new story.  And while we can sometimes learn to tell a new story on our own, stories are crafted, even about ourselves, in the telling of them, in interaction with others. So it is through interaction with others – and participation in a shared story – that we may learn to tell a new story about ourselves. We become characters in the new story, we learn to reinterpret the experience we share, and we become capable of taking take new action – which in turn helps us creates a new story.


At the same time, what we learn from new experience depends on the story that we tell about it. Participants in the Montgomery bus boycott, for example, experienced power that challenged their beliefs in their powerlessness. “Action” matters because it results in new experience. But the meaning of the new “experience” depends on the story that we tell about it, thus encouraging new “action”. Moving ourselves to act in ways that give us the opportunity to reframe our experience is a critical step in organizing. If you look at the Exodus story you'll note God stops the action just as the Israelites are about to cross the Red Sea to instruct them in the telling of the story of what is happening and establish rituals for its annual retelling.


We can also weave new stories from old ones. The Exodus story, for example, served the Puritans when they colonized North America, but it also served Southern blacks claiming their civil rights in the freedom movement. The story of Jesus going up to the Temple to cleanse it of moneychangers became black clergy “going up” to conduct prayer services in the county court house.


Does all this make storytelling “irrational?” Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that genuine moral choices – by which she means choices we are actually moved to act upon – are rooted in data our emotions provide about what is of real value to us. Storytelling, then, is about translating our values into the emotions that enable us to act.



The Structure of Stories


But what are the components of a story?  And how does a story work, exactly?  Scholars of narrative identify three elements of story: plot, characters, and moral.  The effect of a story grows out of the setting of it’s telling: who tells it, which listens, where they are, when they are, and why they are.



The Plot


What makes a plot a plot?  The plot is what engages us, captures our interest, and makes us pay attention.   How does a plot begin? A journey begins, a crisis is faced, and a resolution is achieved. A plot has a beginning, a crisis, and a resolution.  As the plot begins (once upon a time), our protagonist is going along her way to a desired goal. But what happens? All of a sudden something stops her in her tracks. She didn’t plan for this. But now she’s got to deal with it. And it’s tough, because it just came out of the blue. And that’s when we get interested She struggles. .  Will it turn out all right?  Will she succeed or fail?  As her efforts unfold, the suspense builds to a climax when things are resolved by getting back on the old track, getting on a new track to the old goal, or getting on a new track to a new goal.[1]  There is a resolution.


And that’s a plot: an actor move toward a desired goal, an intervening unexpected crisis befalls them, and they struggle toward a resolution.


Why does this interest us so?


Isn’t dealing with the unexpected – on a small scale or on a large scale - a part of our daily lives? The movie theater may be out of tickets. We may lose our job. Our marriage may break up. In big ways or in small, we are constantly face with having to figure out what to do about the unexpected.


In fact, isn’t it what defines us as human beings – creatures capable of making choices in face of the unknown? When we act out of habit we are not choosing, we’re just following the routine. And when we react without even thinking, we are not choosing. Our amigdala is in charge. It is only when we are faced with moments in which the routines break down, the guidelines are unclear, and there’s no one to tell us what to do – that’s when we’re on our own, that’s when we make real choices, but that’s also when we can become the creators of our own lives, communities, and futures – that’s when we become agents of our own fate.


In fact psychologists report that most of the time that parents spend with their children is in story telling – stories of the family, “children’s stories”, the child’s stories, stories of the neighbors.  Bruner describes this as “agency training”: the fundamental way in which we learn how “we” process choices in the face of uncertainty – as a person, as a member of a family, as of a particular gender, as of a particular faith, and so on. .


So of course learning how to deal with the unpredictable is something about which we are infinitely curious. We can never learn enough about it. Why else do we invest billions of dollars a year, not to mention countless hours, in films, literature, sports events – not to mention the time we devote to religious practices, cultural activities, and national celebrations – all of which teach us something about how to answer this question?  




Although a story needs a plot, it only “works” if we can identify with the characters.  Through empathetic identification with the protagonist, experiencing how s/he feels, we are able to enter into the experience of the story. We can feel something of what they feel. And it is through the experience of what we feel that the story can teach us – can give us the kind of emotional insight that Aristotle identified can come to us through the feelings of fear and pity evoked by Greek tragedy.  As we identify with the characters, their experience can touch us, open our eyes.


Arguments persuade with evidence, logic, and data. But stories persuade by moving us though empathetic emotional identification with the characters.  Sometimes we identify with protagonists that are only vaguely “like us” – like the road runner (if not the coyote) in the cartoons. Other times we identify with protagonists that are very much like us – as in stories about friends, relatives, neighbors. And sometimes the protagonists of a story are us and we find ourselves in the midst of an unfolding story, the outcome of which we have become the authors. 


It is by identifying with the characters in stories, then, that we can feel emotions that can teach us.  The suspense of uncertainty in a story is something that we feel ourselves. 



The Moral


The resolution of a story reveals its moral, its call to action. But the lesson isn’t only a consequence of feeling what the character feels, although that allows us to enter into the story. It is in our emotional experience of the story as a whole. We do not retell the story of David and Goliath because we learn to use stones to fell giants. We retell it because it teaches David’s courage, resourcefulness, and imagination, and, even though we may not identify with him, Goliath’s arrogance.


Bruner writes, “Stories are like doppelgangers, operating in two realms, one a landscape of action in the world, the other a landscape of consciousness where the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings and secrets play themselves out.”[2]  When we hear a story about a fearful character who, out of anger, acts courageously and emerges victorious, we feel the character’s fear, we feel the character’s anger, we feel the character’s courage, and we feel hopeful for our own life because the character is victorious.  We don’t often tell stories about people being courageous and losing when we want to motivate action. In fact, stories teach the most about how to manage our emotions in the face of difficult choices – to be courageous, to keep our cool, to trust our imagination— rather than about the tactics to use in any one case.


We tell stories to make something happen, to achieve a response, to get a reaction, to have an effect.  Haven’t you ever been at a party where someone starts telling a story and they go on….and on…..and on….. Don’t you ever want to shout, “Point?  Point!  Get to the point!!” Stories have a point. We deploy them because we want to make a point. Stories teach us the “right” way to act They are not simply an example, an illustration, a case in point. When they are well told we experience the point – we feel hope, we feel relieved, we feel connected - and it is that experience, not the words as such, that can move us to action. Because sometimes that is the point – we have to act.



Story Setting: Social Transactions


Stories are told. They are not a disembodied string of words, images, and phrases. They are not a “message”, a “sound bite”, or a ‘brand” – although these rhetorical fragments may refer to a story. Story telling is a way we interact with each other, share experiences with each other, counsel each other, comfort each other, and inspire each other to action. So no story can be understood without understanding who tells the story, who listens to the story, where they are, when they are, and why they are.


Kevin Bradt emphasizes that stories are, first and foremost, a means of oral-aural communication.  A story is told by someone, and a story is heard, in a particular context:


[S]tory can only speak in the here and now, in this present moment, in this place, among these people, in this telling, in this context, once and only.  Tell the exact same story a moment later to the same people and an entirely different story may very well be heard….[3]


As a story is told we evaluate the story – and find it more or less easy to enter into to – depending on who the storyteller is. Is it his or her story? We hear it one way. Is it the story of a friend, a colleague, a family member? We hear it another way. Is it a story without time, place, or specificity? We step back from it. Is it a story we share, perhaps a Bible story that draws us toward one another?


Storytelling is in this way fundamentally relational.  We respond. We call up our own stories, and tell another in response. And when we retell it, we may "customize" it a bit to bring out our “truth” of what “really” happened – in case those who are listening are “missing the point.” 



Stories and the Self


We all author our own story, our “life story.” Like other stories, we create our life story out of choices we make about how to act. We reveal “ourselves” in moments of choice because our choices are evidence of the values we actually live by.  These choices, and the results they produced, generate powerful stories that influence how we act in the present.


Although philosophers and psychologists have long searched for the “self”, what more is it than the protagonist of his or her own story? Bruner writes:


…[T]heir “self” comes out to be little more than a standard protagonist in a standard story of a standard genre.  She sets out on a quest, runs into obstacles and has second thoughts about her aims in life, remembers what’s needed as needed, has allies and people she cares about, yet grows without losing herself in the process.  She lives in a recognizable world, speaks her mind when she needs to but is thrown when words fail her, and wonders whether her life makes sense.  It can be tragic, comic, a bildungsroman, whatever.  Does selfhood require more than a reasonably well wrought story, a story whose continuing episodes tie together (like stories generally, or like lines of precedent in the law)?[4]


Our concept of ourselves, then, is intimately tied to our story, in which each of us is the protagonist. We tend to experience life as goal di­rected, from birth through a series of numerous minor and a few major trans­formative crises (childhood, adoles­cence, young adulthood, marriage, retirement, etc.) that finally get resolved at our death (Solon said the meaning of a person’s life is never known until it is over).


Telling Our Story


What do we teach when we tell our story? We teach the values our choices reveal, not as abstract principals, but as our lived experience – we reveal the kind of person we are. To the extent that we enable others to identify with us, the more specific our stories, the more powerfully the help us communicate our values or what moral philosopher Charles Taylor calls our “moral sources.” 


A story is like a poem. A poem moves not by how long it is, how eloquent, or how complicated. It moves by offering an experience, a moment through which we grasp the feeling the poet communicates. The more telling the details we choose to recount, the more we can move our listeners.


Some of us think our story doesn’t matter, people aren’t interested, or we shouldn’t be talking about ourselves so much. On the contrary, especially if we do public work, we are responsible to give a public account of ourselves - where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we think we’re going. Aristotle argued rhetoric had three components: logos, pathos, and ethos. The logos is the logic of the argument. The pathos is the feeling the argument evokes. But the ethos is the credibility of the person who makes the argument – the foundation of the other two..


And the thing about it is that we don’t really have a choice. If we don’t author our story, others will – and they may tell our story in ways that we may not like. Not because they are malevolent, but because as others try to make sense of who we are, what we’re up to and why, they draw on their own experience, especially their experience of people they consider to be “like” us.


Barak Obama told his “public story’ at the Democratic National Convention last year. Mario Cuomo’s told his public story as the keynote address to the same body in 1984. They told stories of their own lives that allowed us to experience the values that drove them, allowed us to identify with them, and encouraged us to act on those values in our own lives.



Woven Stories

From Individual to Community


Stories, of course, are not just individual accounts of one’s own experiences.  Indeed, within our “self” story are embedded fragments of stories drawn from our culture, our faith, our parents, our friends and the movies we’ve seen and the books we’ve read. 


And while individuals have their own stories, communities weave collective stories out of distinct threads, bound together in a common pattern:  a shared project (our goal), a shared crisis (our individual threads intersected the day Kennedy was assassinated or when we saw the planes hit the twin towers), our shared values (we learned the morals about how we are to act, how life is to be lived.). Points of intersection can become the focus of a shared story– the way we link individuals’ threads into a common weave. My story becomes “our” story when its project is our project, its crisis is our crisis, or its resolution teaches a moral common to us all.   


These stories then not only teach us how to live, they also teach us how to distinguish who “we” are from the “other”, reducing uncertainty about what to expect from another. Of all the sources of environmental uncertainty within which we live it is not the weather, earthquakes, or disease that are the sources of greatest uncertainty and unpredictability – it is the behavior, the actions and reactions, of the people whom we live among. And a shared stock of stories gives us greater safety.


Our cultures are repositories of stories. Our community stories are also about challenges we faced, why we stood up to them (our values, our shared goals), and how we over came (our religious traditions, political beliefs, economic beliefs). We tell community stories again and again as folk sayings, popular songs, religious rituals, and community celebrations (e.g., Easter, Passover, 4th of July). Just like the stories of individuals,

collective stories can inspire or paralyze, can inspire hope and generate despair. 

When certain stories become dominant in a culture, they can constrain the way we perceive our choices – as we stick to a script with which we are familiar.


The power of stories lies in the values, the emotional commitments that they draw upon, affirm, or challenge.  Stories thus draw on other stories, just as they may give rise to new stories. What stories does Henry draw on?  Stories of St. Crispin?  Stories of manliness? Stories of fathers and sons?


Stories of Hope

 From Past to Future


Stories of hope are about the future. Although we think of stories as having occurred in the past, story telling is about the future, producing effects in the future, action we should take in the future. Although they draw on the past, it is to motivate us to meet a current challenge, thus shaping – or reshaping – a desired future.


Stories of hope are “future stories” in which we are the protagonists. We face a crisis, a challenge. We are called upon to stand up to that challenge. There’s hope if we do. And there’s action we can take to make it happen. It’s not a sure thing by any means, but . . . there’s hope. . . and it’s the right thing to do.


The story teller, one among us whom we have authorized to interpret this moment for us, to narrativize it, articulates the moment of crisis as a choice, reminds us of the moral resources (our stories, stories of our family, our community, our culture, our faith) we can draw upon to deal with it, offers and hopeful vision we can share, and moves to the steps we must take to start on the journey.  This is done most explicitly when storytellers make the present part of a story.


The Challenge


A story of hope begins with recognition that the challenge we face can become a moment of choice. We feel the uncertainty, but it is combined with a sense of promise. We feel the urgency, combined with possibility.  We feel the crisis not only demands action now, but we face a choice, a choice that will make a difference: do we act or not? By turning a bad, hopeless, or overwhelming situation into moment of choice, we have narrativized the moment. It has become a moment of significance in our lives.  We are in the midst of a new story.


While we may have believed ourselves resigned to an inevitable fate, a story of hope moves us to consider new possibilities.  Henry begins his speech to his men by, quite directly, giving them the choice to leave:


            Rather proclaim it Westmorland, through my host

                That he which hath no stomach to this fight

                Let him depart.  His passport shall be made,

                And crowns for convoy put into his purse.

                We would not die in that man’s company

                That fears his fellowship to die with us.       


Of course, it’s not just about choice.  People paralyzed by fear, who do not have the wherewithal to choose, may not have a real choice.  If Henry merely reported the odds of victory, and offered his soldiers the choice to leave, many of them would likely have ran for the hills.  So along with presenting a choice, an organizer motivates his constituency to choose to act rooted in those values that facilitate action. By presenting the battle as a choice – and a noble choice – Henry opens his soldier’s eyes to the possibility of everlasting honor.  Before the speech they feel resigned to a grim fate.  After, they willingly choose to fight for their eternal glory.  Marshall remembers the choice he presented to striking farm workers:


In the 1979 strike in Salinas, it was one of the hardest times.  It was in July.  There was a period when nothing was happening, and it was before the second season and after the first season, and it was a bitch.  It was really hard.  And so my job was to get people recommitted.  So I went around to every picket line and had a half-hour meeting with people at that company.  And the way I framed it was, “Okay so, so here’s the situation.  We’ve got to decide what we’re going to do.  And we either need to move forward, or we need to let go of it.  And we can decide either thing, but we need to make a decision.  Because if we’re going to let go of it, let’s let go of it, let’s get back to work.  But if we’re going to go forward, we need to do these things.  This is a choice moment.  Here’s the pros, here’s the cons.  We’re meeting with everyone.  But right here right now, what do you want to do.”  And, you know, it was so hard because, shit, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone. We thought we were hurting the growers, and we hadn’t pulled everybody out yet.  We had half the companies out, half in.  Plus we wanted the workers to have the power to win the contract, not the boycott.  So every day it was like, “There’s no money for the strike.”  Anyway, we went through this process, and of course everybody decided to stay.  And afterwards the energy spiked.  It was a real turning point.  And it was only a turning point because it was a real choice.  I made it a choice.  They couldn’t just be on the picket line and complain, it was like one or the other.  Nobody’s going to leave, but what he’s just done is making it a choice that they stay.  Even if people kind of know they’re doing that, because it creates a moment of freedom in which you have to choose.  So you’re free to go.  If you’ve decided to stay, it means you’ve got to make the most of it.


Having real choice is an experience of freedom.  When, given this freedom, we choose to act in a way that honors certain beliefs over others; certain values over others, those values that we honor grow stronger.  But the choice is in the action.  The change begins when we act.   It’s the taking of the action that becomes transformative, that starts a new pathway.  Motivation that does not turn into action is meaningless.


Why Us, Why Here, Why Now? ?


Why is it that “we” are called upon to face this challenge? What is it in who we are that demands it of us? What is it in who we are that tells us we can do it?


Rather that telling tales in flowery phrases, King Henry focused on mobilizing his men’s understanding of their pasts, their identities, their aspiration to face a current challenge in a way that would make a new future possible – as individuals, as part of the “happy few”, as warriors, Christians, and Englishmen. These might not be the same “moral sources” that we would draw upon to find courage, but, for his time and place, he knew the moral sources of his men.


And in the telling of his story his men become a “we.” When we feel isolated, don’t see interests we share with others, have little access to common resources, we have no sense of shared identity, and we feel powerless.  The experience of solidarity – or love – can challenge this. By articulating why we, as a group, are called to face this challenge, by calling up stories drawn from our experience, our shared culture, our community, we evoke values we hold that compel us to act. And through shared relationships we can experience the support we need to act.  And through mass meetings, singing, common dress, shared language, and other rituals, we can foster a sense of collective identity that helps each of us feel supported in the risks we take.


Each individual’s life story is linked together through the story of shared struggle.  The moment of choice is not only a choice for an individual, but for a group.  And, in a sense, by transforming ourselves into courageous actors, members of a courageous group, we also transform our world.


So when we start a new organization, we not only form new relationships and mobilize new resources, we also begin a new story – a story that, if it is successful, will weave together individual stories with a broader story of the community in which we live.  “Organizing stories” bridge individual stories to a shared story, old frames to new, individual interests to those in common; old possibilities, to new ones.



Where’s the Hope (What Is Possible?)


What can we hope for? Where are we going? What’s the “vision”?


Acting with courage, is to act in the face of fear. While many emotions can help us act in the face of fear, hope matters most. Hope for a better future can trump fear of risking reaching for it. Just as religious belief requires a “leap of faith,” Cornel West argues, politics requires a “leap of hope.”  More philosophically, the Jewish scholar of the 15th century, Maimonides, argued that hope is belief in the “plausibility of the possible” as opposed to the “necessity of the probable.” 


Where does “hope” come from?  How can we inspire hope in ourselves and in others?  It will not work to pass out cupcakes, sing kumbaya, and announce we should “be hopeful now.”


Hope is specific, not abstract. When God wishes to inspire the Israelites in Exodus, he doesn’t offer vague “hope”, but describes a “land flowing with milk and honey”. We can picture it, see it, and imagine what it would feel like. The Prophet Amos tells us that “when there is no vision, the people perish” because a people cannot live without hope.


A vision of hope can unfold a chapter at a time. It can begin, for example, with simply getting the number of people to show up at a meeting that you committed to do. It can build by winning a “small” victory, evidence that change is possible. But what turns a small victory into a source of hope is its interpretation as part of a greater vision.


One important source of hope for many people is in their religious beliefs, their moral and cultural traditions – another sort of collective story.  It is no accident many of the great social movements of our time drew strength from religious traditions within which they arose (Gandhi, Civil Rights, Solidarity).  Much of today’s organizing is grounded in faith communities. 


In churches, when people have a “new story’ to tell about themselves it is often in the form of “testimony” –a person sharing their an account of their experience moving from despair to hope, the significance of the experience itself strengthened by the telling of it.  Sometimes other communities have already won what our community seeks. They can come and tell us about it, giving us far greater hope when we hear from them in person.


Another source of hope is in the relationship among organizers and constituencies, leaders and follower – one of the reasons learning to tell one’s public story is so important. Some of us have learned to inspire hopefulness in others. Eeyore, for example, would make a very poor organizer.  (“Good morning, Eeyore!  What’s good about it, Pooh?”). One way to think of charisma” is as a capacity to inspire hopefulness in others, inspiring others to believe that something different is possible.


How does Henry restore hope to his men? Does he tell them the battle will be easy? Does he rundown the French, telling his men that they’re not really up to it? Does he convince them that help is on the way? Does he tell them none will die?


No. Henry doesn’t lie about the facts – they are brutally clear. He changes their meaning.


He stirs hope in his men’s hearts by changing his men’s view of themselves. No longer must they remain a few bedraggled soldiers led by a young and inexperienced king in an obscure corner of France who are about to be wiped out by an overwhelming French force. They can become a “happy few”, united with their king in solidarity, holding an opportunity to grasp immortality in their hands, to become legends in their own time, a legacy for their children and grand children. Can they turn away? This is their time!


Rather than telling tales of jolly old England, he helped his men look to their traditions, their pasts for the moral resources to reach toward a new future. By engaging his men in telling a new story of who they were, he transformed the meaning of the battle that they faced, turning certain defeat into possible victory. 


Of course the story didn’t do it alone. Victory also required Welsh archers who with their longbows knocked French knights off their horses. But longbows or not, if the English had believed themselves beaten there is little doubt they would have been.


What’s the Action?


One of the greatest inhibitions to action is self-doubt – a belief in one’s own inadequacy to handle the task at hand. Self-doubt can be challenged by a call to action that makes clear how one can actually “make a difference” – one can choose, one has a job to do, one is up to the job, and, if done well, together with the efforts of all the others, we will accomplish our mission.


It’s the story of a strategy, a credible strategy, an account of how, starting with who and where we are, we can, step by step, get to where we want to go.


And for the claim that “you can make a difference” to be credible, the action must begin right here, right now, in this room, with action each one of us can take. And then we see how it can build. Our action can call forth the actions of others. And theirs, of others, and together carry the day. It’s like the old protest song Pete Seeger used to sing,


“One man’s hands can’t tear a prison down.

Two men’s hands can’t tear a prison down.

But if two and two and fifty make a million,

We’ll see that day come round. We’ll see that day come round.


Stories of Hope Are New Beginnings


Beginnings are when storytelling is at its most powerful– for individuals, their childhood; for groups, their formation; for movements, their launching; and for nations, their founding.  The way we interpret these moments of great uncertainty – about the future, about each others, about what we’re doing – establish the norms, create the expectations, and shape patterns of behavior that influence all subsequent development of our group, organization, or movement.


And we draw on them again and again. Nations institutionalize retelling their founding story as an ever renewable source of guidance and inspiration. Most faith traditions enact a weekly retelling of their story of redemption, usually rooted in their founding as well. Well told stories help turn moments of great crises into moments of  “new beginnings.”





We tell stories for many purposes. We tell them to recruit as a “rap” in which I invite you to link your story with mine and that of our organization.  We tell them to teach – they communicate values, like “the way we do things around here,” who our “heroes” are, what our “formative moments” were, etc.  We tell them to empower – the story of a new organization unfolds as new people join in “writing it” and weave their own story into it.  We tell them to mobilize – a march, for example, is an enacted story in which each of us makes a contribution to a journey toward a shared goal.  We tell them to build community as we express shared identities in rituals, celebrations, commemorations, etc.  And we tell them to interpret ourselves and our organization to the world.


[1]  In post-modern fiction, there may be no resolution at all as the protagonist wanders off in no particular direction -- when the author may be telling us about the meaning in meaninglessness.  

[2]   Bruner, 26

[3]   Bradt, 17

[4]   Bruner, 72-73