Friday, July 18, 2014

You Are Putty in a Storyteller's Hands

For most of my adolescent life, my mother owned and operated a daycare center in our home. It was always loud, messy, and crazy, but those were some of my fondest memories. She converted our garage into a playroom, our backyard into a playground, and our living room into what she called "the classroom." It was the perfect business for mom. She got to stay home and get paid to do what she did best: raising kids. The parents who signed up for her babysitting services adored her, and many of them quickly became family friends. They even got special perks when they picked up their children - homemade Filipino food.

Business was booming, but she was already reaching maximum capacity to run a home-based child care center. During the summer, I had to help her out. While she was busy changing dirty diapers or feeding the babies, I took care of the older ones. "Lucky" for me, the older ones were a group of five boys with ages ranging from 6 to 8 years old. I was 13 or 14 years old at the time, so I couldn't just drive them to the movies to sit them down quietly somewhere. I had to get creative. Rollerblading in the kitchen? That worked for about five minutes until everyone started falling down on purpose and mom had to cook her endless supply of lumpia and pancit. Splashing around the water sprinklers? Fun, but only for a limited time.

So I told them stories in the living room. Much to my mom's relief, I kept the boys out of harm's way and entertained them at the same time. I didn't always like kids, but I sure did love the power of captivating an audience. We were a match made in heaven. There were certain stipulations from this relationship, though. These boys wanted original stories. I couldn't simply just read to them.  They were bored with books because as they proudly declared, "I know how to read them by myself."

They refused to listen to my version of fairy tales or folk tales because "they're too babyish," and they "already know what happens next anyway." So by popular demand, I had to make up stories right there on the spot. The scarier, the better. The grosser, the better.

That was the year she told me, "You'd make a great teacher someday." She knew it 15 years before I ever stepped foot in my first classroom.

"No, Mom, I'm not patient with them. They're so annoying. And besides, I like to write."

I had different plans. I was going to move to NYC to become a writer/editor/boss of Sassy magazine like Jane. I spent my time making magazine mock-ups with friends, getting to know the voices of the writers, and making up stories for the "It Happened to Me" column that never really happened to me. I wrote stories. That's what I've always done.

Fast-forward two decades and one career change later, I'm a teacher.

But the storyteller in me didn't die. In fact, it created an entrepreneur in me. With the creative development of my husband, my stories became books, which came equipped with videos, voice-over narration, a virtual teacher with tutorials, and original songs to boot. When I taught elementary school, storytelling was still my favorite party trick!
I didn't realize, however, that it was more than just a party trick until I came across Jonathan Gottschall's article from Fast Company. It explained that for over twenty years, psychologists have been seriously studying how stories affect the human mind. "Fiction," it stated, "seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence."

In other words, we are putty in a storyteller's hands. Oh, I see now! I...have...the...power!!!!

This is why the most savvy marketing professionals know that storytelling is what gets even the most capable business executives suckered into their products, ideas, or whatever they're selling.
I have mixed feelings about the theory of using storytelling in business and marketing. On one hand, it's pretty encouraging for an entrepreneur like me to have a story or two to tell to inspire others. On the other hand, I feel that many think the stories themselves are the products, or worse, the advertisement. They're not.

Stories, whether they are fact or fiction, stem from ingenuity. Stories are crafted with power. With emotion. With characters that live within the hearts and minds of the teller and the audience. Mix those ingredients with business - it can get explosive. 
For example, when people first learn that I'm an author, I'm very careful about responding to their questions. I often get asked two questions.

The first is,  "Who is your publisher?" and the next one is, "How many books have you sold?"

Business owners want to do the math in their heads to get an idea on how much revenue I've generated and whether they'd want to invest in my next project. If it's anything less than what they had in mind, they think it's a waste of time. Amateur writers want the hook-up on how to get their own books published and distributed without doing their own leg work.

Time and again, I've had to say, "We're not in the book-selling business." Then they get confused because they're missing the whole story. 
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