Today I’d like to expand the story of storytelling. We’ve been thinking stories into existence from time without beginning for every purpose under the sun. But what about those unborn stories that live inside our bodies as regenerative wholes, waiting to be told?
This calls to mind one of my favorite expressions of all time, “you don’t know what you don’t know…until you do.” Storytelling from the place of not yet knowing what wants to be written is a less familiar (and maybe even scary) place to be in, especially if we’re clearing the slate of the past to rewrite a new future. The empty void from the neck down is one from which all possibility and potential springs.
As a thought experiment, what could happen if we accessed our body for the raw material of new stories that don’t yet exist? Those stories that are longing to inspire movements, rally people we don’t yet know to support our causes, and spark long overdue evolutions in health, climate change, education, food systems, and whatever other broken institution keeps you up at night. Think: off script TEDx Talks that are body (vs. mind) centered, laser-focusing on the thing that wants to be storied right now.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harris frames storytelling as the superpower that sets us apart from other mammals. It’s historically a survival instinct at best, helping us build community and tribes for social-emotional support. The underlying ingredient of imagination is what fuels our power and ideas in this world. The stories we tell shape the living systems that surround us, solve problems in the worlds we operate in, and become the deciding factor of either health or disease in our societies.
If stories hold such power, can we reimagine how we come to create them? We are living in crazy transformative times where new stories of all kinds are fair (and necessary) game. We can’t afford to sustain ourselves on empty calories of empty stories that give us more of the same dead end solutions to the pressing problems of today. We need regenerative stories that actualize for the whole.
If we story-ed from a present place of aliveness, we may have a shot at rewriting the story of storytelling itself.
The most regenerative story I ever told took 3 years to write
After years of helping businesses find and tell their brand stories, I decided to flip this back on myself. What’s my story beyond helping others find theirs? Three years, multiple written iterations and voice recordings in nature later, I published “How I’m Curing the Cancer I Never Had With Epigenetic Science.”
This coming out story lived inside of me for…Three. Whole. Years. My brain tried its hand at every possible medium, format and audience. I’ll never forget that one time I was literally seated butt naked in the middle of a circle (of equally naked humans) about three words into telling my story. The facilitator stopped me mid-sentence and asked, “How about starting that over, and this time…dropping out of the head and into the body?”
It was a tantra workshop, so no surprise there. In the end, this became the most replayed memory of awkward eureka. Why? Because my body spoke its naked (no pun intended) truth without holding onto any particular way the story needed to be spoken, written, or understood. It was a first draft in the three dimensional unstructured making. The mind was somewhere in the mix, but any strategic nuance of “this is how I’m supposed to tell this story to this particular audience” was far gone. Mind you, this was my first time sharing this story out loud to listening ears.
Your body has a story to tell
As Julian Shapiro famously says, “When you blow your own mind, you become a better storyteller. Your mind and body instinctively know what to do.”
As a brand storyteller that blends strategy with creativity to bring businesses to life, I’m no stranger to vision statements, value propositions and the art of tailoring stories to target audiences. Sure, there’s a time and place for the more strategic stories that help us win the pitch, give the TEDx talks, sell the products, and shake the intellectual elite out of their trances (Greta, I’m looking at you).
That said, I do believe that these stories are strengthened when we do the upfront and sometimes harder work of sitting in that empty void of nothing. A place of nothing beyond timeline and structure is where those untold stories can find footing and emerge iteratively over time.
When we suspend strategies of ‘how to story,’ we also have a better shot of unearthing the (insert: regenerative, whole, slow) story that we would’ve likely missed had we been too mentally busy to listen to. And no you don’t need to attend a naked tantra workshop to try this out for yourself.
Introducing body-centered storytelling
For the framework junkies out there, here’s an invitation to suspend what you know about the hero’s journey and go-to storytelling structures that help you stay on course. You can always return to those in the final revisions, but for that first attempt at unearthing the body’s story, I encourage an alternative path to allow your biology to do what it does best.
“The way that we can create and share ideas with each other was born, perfected, and perpetuated in story. Storytelling (and story listening) is an evolutionary trait refined over thousands of years to unify and coalesce us as a species.” (source)
To create the conditions for your greatest story to naturally emerge, let’s unpack the core ingredients:
- Lean into your vulnerability — thanks to Brene Brown, our culture’s already primed for the real and uncomfortable. Sure, there are times when talking yourself up is the point (in say, an interview or pitch), but in the space of body-centered storytelling, we want to set that aside and edge closer into our “mess” for the message to be born. Humans love a good underdog, so give yourself permission to step out of what’s comfortable for all of us.
- Feel more out loud — 60 percent of awareness on you, 40 percent on your audience. Stay in your power always, but be sure to feel into others around you. Thanks to evolution, we all come with mirror neurons (otherwise known as the compassion messengers in our brain) that help us track another’s inner world of emotion. Neuroscience has proven that the exact areas of the brain light up in both speaker and listener whenever #metoo moments of commonality are revealed in a story. In the end, it’s not really the plot points that make a good story, “it’s about how you felt about what transpired” that moves mountains.
- Align with impact — there’s a good chance that your deeply authentic story is loaded with lessons, insights and legacy. If those treasures seem obvious, make them known anyways. We deepen our sense making in conversation and story, as teller and listener alike. Those mirror neurons are the basis for why our ancestors gathered around fires together. “Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.” (Source)
- Embrace mystery — when we share our stories out loud, mystery comes in handy. What and when we withhold those golden moments are just as important as what we reveal. Revel in the fascinating. Hook your listeners, and don’t give it all away at once. “Then stretch tense moments out. Relive them. Be excited by the exciting. Be shocked at the shocking.”
Rewriting the story of storytelling as present emergence
Let’s give it a spin. The invitation is to hit play below and resist all urges to think your way into story. Feel the emergence of images, sensations and memories that move you into that first sensorial draft of storymaking.
Some other helpful tips during the process:
- Find a comfortable seat as you’ll be here for 20 minutes or so
- Set aside your writing devices for later. If you find yourself reaching for that pencil or digital device, notice that urge and be with that too.
- Allow the story to find you, and become it before you write it down
- Once your seated meditation is complete and you’re ready to capture your findings, I encourage using a recording device to speak it out loud
Congrats! You’ve just allowed your body to speak its first (or perhaps third, fourth, tenth) sensorial draft of the story. And in this emergence, you are rewriting the story of storytelling itself.