The word story is everywhere, and I am not cheering. Despite working as a story activist and being deeply committed to positive social change through compelling stories, I’m worried about where we are with story.
by Dawn Reeves
At a surface level “story” is in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of over-used words and phrases in the media, remember when it was all about the “journey,” then we were living in “unprecedented times” and now it’s “the new normal.” (Urgghh… Bring back the BBC comedy spoof W1A, which was sharp but also good-hearted. ) Everyone wants us to “share our story” and eyes are rolling.
Worse than this is the appropriation of story by snake oil marketeers and the world of advertising, I’m sure it was always a bit like this but now there’s a proliferation of adverts with first person stories featured explicitly. I’m thinking about the implausibly perfect families with generic life events, who over-coming challenges, and their endearing small triumphs are used to sell everything from carrots to building society accounts. Personal stories are treated as products and fake news stories are in the mix. I’ve even seen the verb “to storify” used without a hint of irony.
Story activist Mary Alice Arthur (@MAmusing) and Dr David Drake went further this week in their excellent fireside conversation, referring to stories being trafficked and the urgent need to rise above it. I agree, we (storytellers and comms friends) need to actively guard against our stories being reduced, undervalued or cynically mined for their meaning. Our authentic stories are precious and need to be shared for purposes we choose.
How to respond to the situation and stay authentic for me, starts and ends with the why. We are proud to publish collections of stories with a clear agenda of public good, supporting and celebrating public services, with gritty reality never dodged or sold out. The stories are a labour of love, they are grounded in the organisations and places where people live and work. Our work is about the stories that don’t get told but should and I’m on a mission to increase the range of voices that get heard and to turn up the volume.
What gives me hope is that stories endure. The process of storytelling is both a natural and scientific phenomenon. Our brains process information as stories, they help us make sense of the world and we are hard wired to connect through storytelling. We couldn’t stop telling stories even if we tried. I hope you value your stories and continue to share them mindfully.
P.S. I think there’s a similar danger with the word “narrative,” which is often used inter-changeably and mistakenly with story – more on that next time.
Dawn Reeves is a facilitator, change agent, writer and public services specialist
Dawn was the creative heartbeat behind the One Story for Local Government book and collection of 60 stories.
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Image via Ethan McCandless