Storytelling

I spent my last few months living at my in-laws farmhouse, somewhere in the country side Romania. The farm is a typical Romanian one; upon the first sight it looks as if time has stopped 100 years ago and people went on living in the same way they did for hundreds of years before that. The only modern artefacts you can find there are electricity, cars, old TVs and the Internet connection that I’m very grateful to use to report for my readers.

The family is very usual for these parts: three and sometimes four generations (especially during holidays) living under the same roof – or in this case, under two roofs since there are two houses. From 9 to 90 years old, we live all together, sharing excellent fresh food from the farm, wonderful walks on the hills that guard the farm and delightful stories, while also doing our jobs and helping one another in any way we can. I can tell you that for any creator, this is the perfect environment. The combination of silence, little adventures (around the farm or involving the neighbours), lack of concerns that so easily take over your life in a city and fresh air makes it the perfect location for writing the next story of Frodo, Samwise Gamgee and Gandalf the White. (Or its equivalent in programming, although it will be extremely difficult to see something of this magnitude happening in software).

children listening to stories

This morning was special in that the grandmother of the house, closing to 90 years old, started to tell us stories about the old times and some of the adventures that she lived in her child years. Like all good stories, they made the family stop and listen, delaying whatever work had to be done, making everyone smile with nostalgia, bewilderment or joyfulness, and asking for another one and another one and another one. The storyteller was skilled by years and years of practice, listening to stories and passing them on, as it has always been since the beginning of times. The time seems to have stopped for this unique moment when a window to another world opened, allowing everyone a glance into the fantasy of past times. Not only have we listened to the story, but we felt transposed into a world where the characters were real. And, like any good Romanian story, the characters included witches and wolves, children and elders, priests and Satan – all ingredients needed to keep listeners wanting for more.

Like any such story, it can be explained in many natural ways and new details are probably made up every time it’s told. This is the way of stories – they grow like a child and they face many obstacles in becoming widespread. Some of them never do. Still, whenever such a story does grow, it becomes the delight of many many people, old and young, believers or not, wannabe adventurers – because wouldn’t we all like to be part of something interesting?

And still, every single day, some of the old stories and some of the master storytellers die and never come back. Modern and civilized people replace storytelling with consuming mass media, worrying about their every day life and dismissing stories as naive. Every single day, we loose a part of what used to be the single way of passing around news, experience, ideas and knowledge. We don’t talk any more, we don’t listen any more, to ourselves or to our peers – we just run around trying to accomplish stuff. Most of the problems I see when talking to developers, managers or when looking at political mistakes in the world can be reduced to knowing to listen and knowing to tell a story in a compelling and informative way. For teams to work well together, the people need to talk and listen to one another, and as a whole they need to tell their story to managers, customers, executives. Since we lack the once mandatory story telling practice from home, we now need to compensate and re-learn how to do it, foster it and pass it on to our children and to whomever else might be interested.

Not 100 years ago, families used to gather around in the evening, sharing their adventures of the day, asking for advice or reviewing ideas. There was always something to talk about, something to share, something to discuss. The elders were telling stories to the children who then took their turn to pass it on to other children or to share their daily activities with the family. This daily practice of children, in front of peers, always followed by feedback from the audience is what built the master storytelling skills of the mother of my mother in law. You and I probably never had this training, and the only way we can become at least half the storyteller she is is by practising in the same way she did. Learn a story, tell it over and over again, look at the faces of the people in the audience, improve a little bit every time by adding more details, making more pauses or learning from other story tellers. You will know you’re on the right track when your listeners start smiling in amazement. Kids are the perfect listeners, since they will forget any mistake you make but they will come back for more if you’re doing it well. Do this every day, and you will see that it’s not only entertaining, but it will help you in unexpected ways, because you will be sending signals through the thin invisible strings that tie us humans together.

This was my story for today. I hope you liked it and I hope you’ll pass it on. Fare thee well now.

PS: These TED talks about stories and creativity are amazing. Take 40 minutes of your time and listen to them. They will change your day.

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