I was 12 years old…
in my family’s mini-van, traveling 5 five hours north on rural Minnesota roads to our small lake cabin for the weekend.
The scene in the van always looked the same. My father drove and listened to the Twins or Vikings game on the radio, my mother read her book and complained about having to read over the sound of the game. I too, read from my seat in the middle row. My younger brother sat in the back, listening to a Beach Boys cassette tape and my younger sister slept next to him. Every drive, for five hours, it was the same; each of us keeping quietly to ourselves.
But on one particular trip, our relative silence was broken by spontaneous bursts of laughter from my brother. It was annoying at first, as little brothers tend to be. And then it was confusing; what was suddenly so funny about Help Me Rhonda? The mystery was quickly solved when I realized he wasn’t listening to the Beach Boys but rather a tape my mother had checked out of the library.
A storytelling tape.
On it was ten or so stories, told live by different storytellers at the National Storytelling Festival. As an older sister, it was my job to be disinterested in whatever it was my little brother was doing but this simply couldn’t be ignored. His laughter was so genuine we all wanted a piece of it. My mom made my brother remove the cassette from his walkman, my dad reluctantly turned off the game on the radio, and we played the tape from the beginning for the whole van to hear. And though we varied in age, in experience and road-trip agenda, we were all equally captivated. We laughed until we cried and for all of Side A and most of Side B until we arrived at the cabin, we were the most united I ever remember being.
All it took were a few stories. That was one of a handful of vivid memories from my childhood when I witnessed and experienced the grip a story can have on an individual, the glue it can become for a group.
Several years later, I entered and won a national storytelling competition. The grand prize? The opportunity to tell a story at the very festival where that road-trip cassette tape was recorded. I travelled with my mother to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN where every October thousands of people flood a no-stoplight town and gather under enormous tents to hear stories from master tellers. The tellers aren’t there to sell a product or promote an agenda, but rather to connect the people who squeezed in by the thousands. I watched as the tellers’ stories mesmerized the crowd and had the distinct sense that the impact of storytelling went beyond what meets the eye.
When the festival concluded, my mother and I rode back the to airport together in a mini-van shuttle. She looked at me and said, “You could do this, you know. You could be a professional storyteller.” I scoffed at her in the way only a teenage daughter can. “Oh yeah. I’m going to tell stories for the rest of my life…” (insert eye roll). And though she likely feels the urge to say, “I told you so” to me on a daily basis, I like to think we were both right.
Because yes, since that moment, stories have been my life; they are what I do, they are what I know, they are how I earn my income and how I make my difference. However, the storytelling I do has very little to do with my stories. Though I often find myself on a stage speaking to thousands, my message is about their stories; that they have them, why they should tell them, how they can find them and how they can use them.
Just as my family, all with different agendas, desires and experiences, came together in the van during that drive to the cabin, so do stories unite teams, connect customers to brands, and close the gaps that divide us in business and beyond.