Story of Self
Why tell stories?
The initial challenge for an organizer—or anybody who’s going to provide leadership for change—is to figure out how to break through the inertia of habit to get people to pay attention. Often that breakthrough happens by urgency of need. Sometimes it happens because of anger— not rage, it is outrage. It’s the contradiction between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Our experience of that tension can break through the inertia and apathy of things as they always are.
How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.
In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.
The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.
All stories have three parts: a plot, a protagonist, and a moral. What makes a plot a plot? What gets you interested? Tension. An anomaly. The unexpected. The uncertain and the unknown. A plot begins when the unknown intervenes. We all lean forward because we are familiar with the experience of having to confront the unknown and to make choices. Those moments are the moments in which we are most fully human, because those are the moments in which we have the most choice. While they are exhilarating moments, they are also scary moments because we might make the wrong choice.
We are all infinitely curious in learning how to be agents of change, how to be people who make good choices under circumstances that are unexpected and unknown to us. In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.
That’s why most of our faith traditions interpret themselves as stories, because they are teaching our hearts how to live as choiceful human beings capable of embracing hope over fear, self-worth and self-love over self-doubt, and love over isolation and alienation.
Therefore, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools organizers can use to unite a movement. Your story is the “why” of organizing — the art of translating values into action through stories. It is an ongoing discussion process through which individuals, communities and nations construct their identity, make choices and inspire action. Each of us has a compelling story to tell that can move others.
Two ways to engage
Leaders employ both the “head” and the “heart” in order to mobilize others to act effectively on behalf of shared values. In other words, they engage people in interpreting why they should change their world — their motivation — and how they can act to change it — their strategy.
Many leaders are good at the analysis side of public speaking: They focus on presenting a good argument or strategy. Alternatively, other leaders tell their personal story, often a tale of heartbreak that educates us about the challenge but doesn’t highlight the potential for successfully realizing the end goal.
An effective story of self has to have elements of both the analytical and the emotional. It is a story that involves the head and the heart — and moves people to use their hands and feet in action.
Action is inhibited by inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation and apathy. Action is facilitated by urgency, hope, knowing you can make a difference, solidarity and anger. Stories mobilize emotions that urge us to take action and help us overcome emotions that inhibit us from action.
The key to storytelling is understanding that values inspire action through emotion. We experience our values emotionally — they are what actually move us to act. Because stories allow us to express our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others to action as well.
Finding your story of self’s “choice point”
A story of self tells why we have been called to serve. It expresses the values or experiences that call each person to take leadership on a given issue.
The key focus is on choice points: moments in our lives when values are formed because of a need to choose in the face of great uncertainty. When did you first care about being heard, or learn that you were concerned about the issue on which you want to take action? Why? When did you feel you had to do something about it? Why did you feel you could? What were the circumstances? What specific choice did you make?
The three key elements of storytelling structure
Challenge ⮕ Choice ⮕ Outcome
A plot begins with an unexpected challenge that confronts a character with an urgent need to pay attention, to make a choice — a choice for which he or she is unprepared. The choice yields an outcome, and the outcome teaches a moral.
Because we can empathetically identify with the character, we can “feel” the moral. We not only hear about someone’s courage; we can also be inspired by it.
The story of the character and their effort to engage around values engages the listener in their own challenge, choice and outcome relative to the story. Each story should include all three elements. It’s not enough to say, “I was scared.” You need to say, “I was very scared, I needed to decide, and when I did, I learned it was possible.” Challenge, choice, outcome. Incorporating challenge, choice and outcome in your own story
There are some key questions you need to answer as you consider the choices you have made and the path you have taken that brought you to this point in time as a leader. Once you identify the specific relevant choice point, dig deeper by answering the following questions.
- What was the specific challenge you faced?
- Why did you feel it was a challenge?
- What was so challenging about it?
- Why was it your challenge?
- What was the specific choice you made?
- Why did you make the choice you did?
- Where did you get the courage (or not)?
- Where did you get the hope (or not)?
- How did it feel?
- What happened as a result of your choice?
- What hope can it give us?
- How did the outcome feel?
- Why did it feel that way?
- What did it teach you?
- What do you want to teach us?
- How do you want us to feel?
A word about challenge: Sometimes people see the word “challenge” and think that they need to describe the misfortunes of their lives. Keep in mind that a struggle might be one of your own choosing — a high mountain you decided to climb as much as a hole you managed to climb out of. Any number of things may have been a challenge to you and be the source of a good story to inspire others. After looking back on the story itself, think of what are the value(s) that this story is portraying and how is your story moment reflecting a value (it is all in the moment—storytelling).
Intro to Public Narrative
Story of Self
Story of Self Example
Now it’s your turn to practice writing your Story of Self. Download this worksheet to get you started. Remember that public narrative requires interaction and coaching from others, so we encourage you to work with a partner to support each other as you identify choice moments of challenge, tell them with detail that brings your listening into that moment, and connect these moments to tell about your values.
Test your knowledge
What are the three elements of a Story of Self?