Conventions of storytelling

Last night in his speech before the Republican National Convention, the vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan, zeroed in on “story” in criticizing the current President:

President Obama was asked not long ago to reflect on any mistakes he might have made. He said, well, “I haven’t communicated enough.” He said his job is to “tell a story to the American people”—as if that’s the whole problem here? He needs to talk more, and we need to be better listeners?

Of course, Ryan himself told many stories in the course of that speech (full CBS-TV video here) and throughout his years of campaigning for elected office and doing the work of a legislator.

Storytelling comes with the territory, for Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.

Shaping the narrative is arguably the number one charge of any political or organizational leader. And it’s not simply a matter of one person “talking more” and another “listening better,” phrases that bring to mind a stern, lecturing parent and a chastened child. The reality is more like a crowded marketplace, with carnival barkers and soapbox preachers clamoring for our collective attention and allegiance.

The democratic process is a contest of ideas and values, and unfortunately the contest isn’t fair. Some storytellers have supersized soapboxes and monopolized megaphones, and others have no voice at all.

This fundamental inequity was the subject of Francesca Poletta’s 2006 book, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. As summarized in her research abstract (emphasis mine):

Popular conventions of storytelling have served to reproduce the status quo…, less by limiting what disadvantaged groups can imagine than by limiting the occasions on which they can tell authoritative stories.

Despite an explosion in new media and a profusion of outlets for sharing news and opinion, blogs like mine included, “the occasions on which [disadvantaged groups] can tell authoritative stories” remain rare.

And that rarity is no accident.

Visionary stories imagining a better future abound. One of our goals as collaborative storytellers is to change the conventions — to increase occasions and opportunities for such voices to be heard, to take center stage, and to rise above the clamor.

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