Talking Big Ideas.
“We are all natural storytellers.”
~ Marshall Ganz
“Who are you?”
My teacher, Pratik, asked me this on Saturday. He was leading a weekend SKY Breath workshop. I signed up after reading about how healthy and effective it is. He asked us to think about who we are and come the next day with an answer.
Maryrose and I went out later that evening, sat around a fire, and had a deep conversation talking through possible answers we each would share. Beyond giving our names as a banal platitude, how should we respond to this question?
It’s harder than it seems.
I went down a few weird rabbit holes. Maryrose chose to answer with values that define her. That reminded me of Marshall Ganz, the professor of an excellent storytelling course I took this fall.
Ganz spent the past half century perfecting the art of storytelling for activists. He worked with Cesar Chavez, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and was instrumental in crafting Barack Obama’s iconic 2004 Convention Speech as well as the grassroots organization that propelled Obama into the White House. Today, Ganz teaches his storytelling method to students, executives, and activists around the world.
It all begins with answering Pratik’s question: Who are you?
Ganz calls the answer to this question your Story of Self. He suggests we ignore talking about our resumes, job titles, and achievements. Instead, we should share a few specific moments from our lives. Moments that show how we learned about and acted upon the values that define us.
Stories of Self are filled with vivid details. They typically follow a three-part arc:
- Begin with a moment early in your life that shaped your values.
- Jump to a moment later on where you face a challenge and are called to apply your values.
- Finally, show how these values are reflected in the life you lead today.
As Ganz writes:
Powerful Stories of Self frequently share origin moments (e.g., formative childhood experiences) that show us who you are. They also share a challenge, choice, and outcome. . . . Powerful stories leave your listeners resonating with images that give them an empathetic understanding of you and your calling.
Stories of Self don’t need to be fantastic or dramatic. They just have to reveal the values you hold dear.
They can be condensed to under a minute, expanded into lengthy presentations, or combined with other stories. In class, we created two-minute versions. This forced us to cut away clutter and simply focus on the values that matter most – and the moments that bring them to life.
Here are several video clips of activists sharing their Stories of Self. Below is the version I presented in class to Ganz.
Today’s finally the day!
I run down the stairs. I’m wearing my Poison shirt. My Poison hat. I’m convinced tonight we’re gonna see the greatest rock band ever: Poison!
Of course, my parents have no idea about this. It’s the middle of winter. In freezing-cold Ohio. And I’m eight years old.
My mom sits me down on our plaid couch. She says, in her warm Catholic voice, “Bobby, we’re not going to a concert tonight.”
I’m heartbroken. Tears stream down my face.
My mom sits with me. Fully present. Giving me space to exhale. And taking the time to understand.
She sees how much it means to me.
She spent that day selling jewelry to help make ends meet. She happened to get a check. She gets up from the couch. And goes and cashes the check.
She uses the money to buy tickets to the Poison concert.
We drive, my parents, my brothers, and me, an hour across town on a dark snowy night. Our wholesome Midwest family, in matching pastel shirts – I wasn’t allowed to wear my Poison attire out of the house. We’re hand-in-hand as we enter the concert hall to see the greatest musical performance in history.
Years later, I’m interning in New York. Standing in my shared kitchen, surrounded by scratched up steel appliances, when a friend calls out the blue. He’s drunk. His girlfriend just left him. His job isn’t going well.
I’m stressed about my own job prospects. I’m supposed to leave in a minute to meet someone else. I decide to sit on the phone with my friend instead. Give him space to exhale. And take time to understand his plight.
A few months ago we’re sitting around a fire together with friends. He pulls me aside. Tears in his eyes. He says, “that night I called you drunk, I decided to kill myself. The only reason I didn’t was because you were there for me.”
I had no idea.
Today, I run a business. Our clients hire us to transform their public speaking skills.
My role, at its core, is to be fully present with them. Give them space to exhale. To take the time to understand. And help them on their path.
You have a Story of Self. It shares moments from your life connected by values you hold dear.
Who are you?
Think of a moment from your life that helped to clarify your deeply held values. Take a minute to write down a few sentences that capture it. Paint a picture of the moment with vivid imagery.
Block a half hour on your calendar sometime in the next month to return to this moment and draft your own Story of Self.
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