Futures Friday: Understanding Change Part 2
I spent many childhood hours sitting on the carpet, way too close to the television, watching Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and other influential fiction — stories that still influence me today. As inspiring as those stories were, I was also moved by the telling of the stories. Star Trek was revolutionary in the 1960s for the way it told stories. It broke down barriers and drove change in American society.
Whoopie Goldberg remembers seeing Nichelle Nichols, a black actress, play the communications officer, Lt. Uhura:
“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” Goldberg says. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” -
For Gene Rodenbury, the creator of Star Trek, the story itself was not enough. It was the craft of storytelling, how the story beamed into our homes, planted ideas, nurtured what was possible, and caused the listeners to take action.
What is storytelling?
Storytelling is a craft that allows one to transfer ideas and emotions from one person to another (or group of people). It has many forms and styles. Storytelling is not about facts, figures, and numbers. It is about passion, sparks, occurrences, happenstances, shared moments, seeing one another, and ultimately transferring part of ourselves.
More than an idea
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the power of ideas to create change. Storytelling, however, is about more than conveying ideas. It often starts with a message, a thought, or an idea that the creator then molds and sculpts into something coherent. Whether it is part of the hero/heroine’s journey or some other construct, with nurturing and care, the idea becomes something new. It becomes a story. A story however is a static thing and requires someone to tell it. This can be in words, art, dance, voice, video, and myriads of other forms. Last, there needs to be an audience, a listener. This is a critical part of storytelling as it is often in that relationship between teller and listener where change starts.
How storytelling creates change
Storytelling affects social change in three fundamental stages, inception, fertility, and action. These three stages reflect the reaction of the listener. First, as the original Star Trek series did for a young boy, it starts something new (inception) by planting seeds in the minds of the listener, and it is hard to say what those seeds will grow into. Second, storytellers also have the ability to create fertile ground in the listener, opening up new ways of thinking. This is where seeds may in fact grow and can even transition into the third stage, action. Storytelling can change us internally so fundamentally that we can not sit still.
Stage 1: Inception
Storytelling, at its most fundamental level, is like farming. The story can be a classical piece of literature, a dramatic telling of a space opera, or a news article on CNN or Fox. Regardless of the story, good storytelling, at its core, is about planting ideas. It is about giving somebody something new.
All stories are told to manipulate. They are intended to evoke an emotion or spread an idea. Manipulation is a form of control over change. It is meant to influence the direction of development and progress. The whole reason that journalism even needs a code of ethics compared to other story forms is because of manipulation, bias, and intentions to influence.
Stage 2: Growth & Fertility
One of the most famous stories told in the New Testament is the “Parable of the Sower”. In it, a farmer plants seeds throughout his fields. Some fall on hard soil and fail while others fall on good soil and grow. The second stage of storytelling is creating that fertile and good soil.
Recently, I read a story about the destructive power of empirical colonization in board games. I love tabletop games and playing through a good conquest, but I had never really put much thought into how this type of game story might affect others, specifically those whose cultures have undergone colonization. The storyteller changed my perceptions enough to create a fertile ground, one that is more apt to process similar stories. Storytelling is not always about immediate change. Getting the soil ready is just as important, or else like in the parable, the seeds may fail to yield a crop.
Stage 3: Action
Ideas, sharing, and compassion, these are all tinder for the great conflagration of thought — action. This third stage of storytelling creates a profound enough change to drive the listener to do something proactive.
One of the early 20th century’s greatest examples of action by storytelling is Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle. As a storyteller, Sinclair was able to shine a light on the harsh working and living conditions of the meat packing industry. His power to deliver the story moved a nation and was directly responsible for action president Theodore Roosevelt and the US congress took to create the The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the precursor to the FDA. Roosevelt said after reading The Jungle:
“Action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist”.
Change Through Telling the Future
Perhaps one of the best examples of how storytelling can change society is in a story itself, “The Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury. In this tale of fiction, one man is exasperated with the path of human progress and creates a time machine to go into the future to find the solutions to the world’s current problems. When he comes back, he tells the people of his time of all the wonders of the future. Everyone is so inspired by this story that they create the world of the time traveler’s stories. Eventually a reporter learns that it was a story all along, that the time traveller did not in fact travel in time. It was the power of the storyteller, and the reaction of the people (the listeners), that planted the seeds, allowed them to grow, and blossomed into action to create change.
Real life often mimics fiction. How many great storytellers have influenced people enough to evoke social change? Dr. Martin Luther King, Alexander Hamilton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Gandhi were all gifted storytellers, like so many others, that had a knack for instigating change.
Storytellers continue to change and shape the way we think, and thus react, to the world around us. Behind every major social change there is not only a story, but a storyteller. Someone that was able to take a message and make it alive, make it have impact, and give it enough momentum to challenge the current status quo.
Storytellers are, of course, not the only drivers of social change. Direct experience, warfare, and even some level of happenstance help create change. Storytelling, however, is the most “creative” of them all. It is less reactionary and more imaginatory. It can span great distances, cultures, and time. It can bring leaders to tears and courage to the meek. It is the great fuel, the carbon of thought, that gives all ideas life.
The Power of Storytelling
As powerful an agent as storytelling can be, some storytelling can prevent change and support unhealthy values and behaviors. Why was it OK for Peppy Le Pew to chase that poor cat? Why was everyone laughing as Ralph Kramden threatened to beat his wife on the Honeymooners? Why were these OK stories for children? Who were those storytellers?
Yet, we are all storytellers. When we post on social media, create memes, or chat about our experiences before a meeting on Zoom, we are telling our stories and each word, each image, each movement is a seed planted. How we tell our stories has great power. The question is, what will you do with such power, storyteller?