Let's start with an existing and frequently used word: storytelling. If you search this term on Google, you instantly get half a billion results. It seems that everyone is interested in storytelling: advertisers, Hollywood producers, communications professionals at nonprofit organizations, writers of fiction and nonfiction, social media influencers. The list goes on. There’s a lot of storytelling going on, apparently.
But storytelling, if we think about it, is only one part of a bigger process. What’s curious is that neither storylistening or storysharing are common terms.
Don’t we need them? After all, if someone “tells” a story, we might reasonably expect that some else will be “listening” to it. In fact, it is a lonely and fruitless exercise to only tell the story if no one is listening. And the same goes for storysharing. Often, if not always, we “tell” stories so that we can “share” them. Both of these are the second half--the necessary second half--of a process of engagement and communication.
When Words Don't Exist
It is peculiar that neither of these two terms, which seem essential to the entire process, really exist as words at all. When I write them on a document, my spell check underlines them with a persistent red line.
In fact, the term storylistening barely exists, at least according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2022). It's also true with Google. A search conjures up a mere 280,000 results, and many of these take you to a recently published book by this title, “Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning”, by Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig (Routledge, 2022). I have just ordered and read the book myself, after finding it this way. Dillon and Craig make the case for the “urgent need to take stories seriously to improve public reasoning”. Perhaps they will help popularize this term, and I am happy to join them.
The second term is slightly more common: Google produces over 700,000 results, but still nowhere near a half a billion. This search yielded some interesting blog posts and publications, such as one from 2015 by Jeff Slater called “Story Sharing NOT Storytelling” on his blog The Marketing Sage, where he argues that “story sharing helps make an emotional bond or relationship”, an essential element of communication.
In Favor of Listening and Sharing
I am happy that I am not the only one making these arguments. In fact, my friend Thaler Pekar has been talking about related themes for years. In a 2018 Inspirefest (now Futurehuman) presentation, she reminds us that the “power of stories is in connectivity” and she adds that “we all know the power of telling a story” but she wants her audience to think about the “power of hearing them”. Cynthia Kurtz, who developed a methodology called participatory narrative inquiry, wrote a 600-page book on related themes. And nonprofits like StoryCorp, The Moth Storytelling Hour, and OurStoryBridge are clearly deeply aware of the importance and challenges of listening and sharing. Without these components, let's be honest, what’s the point of telling a story at all?
Another example is in the field of Narrative Construction. For example, Harvard's Marshall Ganz's conception of "public narrative" Includes storysharing as a key component. In Ganz's framework, public narrative consists of three elements: the Story of Self, the Story of Us, and the Story of Now. Storysharing is an integral part of this process, as individuals share their personal experiences to create a collective identity and motivate action toward a common goal. While Ganz's work focuses on political and social change, the concept of storysharing can be applied more broadly to other contexts as well. Similarly, the Frameworks Institute is an excellent source of information about how stries can help shape (new) narratives.
At Memria, we are building tools to facilitate storylistening and storysharing. For example, our data shows that when people listen to recorded audio narrated by another person, they tend to only listen to the first 2-4 minutes. So we encourage people to record short-form (5-minute) stories on the platform. We have built easy-to-use dissemination tools, so that stories we help to collect can be widely shared on social media or in different forms of analog or virtual exhibits.
Maybe We Prefer Speaking?
There is an unanswered, and perhaps uncomfortable, question here. Perhaps, as a species, humans really prefer to speak, and we are generally less interested in listening. That actually seems to be the case. For example, Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer’s article in Harvard Business Review, "Are You Really Listening?" argues that “You won’t find a course on listening at many business schools, but it’s an essential skill for leaders if they hope to counteract the multiple forces that can lull them into believing they know everything they need to know about what’s happening in their organizations”.
We may simply be inept at listening--really listening--at every level of human relationships, from marriages to geopolitics. This seems clear after reading “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out”, by Amanda Ripley. In discussing polarization, conflict, and disagreement that can sometimes be toxic, Ripley points to the detrimental effects of not listening to each other -- “Most people are terrible at listening well, because we never learn how to do it”, she says in her blog -- and the power of deep listening in changing the dynamics of conflict towards more positive processes and outcomes.
But the good news is that we can learn to listen better -- and we can design tools and processes to help us listen better, as we are doing at Memria -- and this will lead to significant benefits.
I remember a conversation with my Uncle Dave. We fundamentally disagree on some big issues, and so it is often hard to discuss anything of consequence. We find ourselves chatting about the most anodyne topics, avoiding disagreement. But at one Thanksgiving dinner, we started talking about immigration, one of the subjects most likely to get us both agitated. I made a choice to shift to engaged listening, really listening. And I will admit something. By the time we moved on to the turkey, I realized that he was right about a key piece of his argument. I did some quick fact-checking, and I realized that his information was correct. And I had some of my facts wrong. This small exchange did not change our views, or the space between us, about immigration. But it did make me understand his views better and, frankly, respect his opinion more. And now I am equipped with better facts and with a friendlier disposition to engage with him on this subject.
Listening is a skill, and perhaps an art, that can be improved.
Which brings me back to the lexicographical issue. Words matter, as Professor Sally McConnell-Ginet deftly argues in a book with that title. And word choice matters. One way we influence culture is by choosing and promoting new words. Indeed, language is dynamic and constantly evolving. Neologisms are vital to progress because they provide cultural updates and signals about who we are and who we want to be. Neologisms both are a result of and contributor to shifting cultural norms.
So I propose using these words more often: storylistening and storysharing. One metric of success will be when we notice that the spellcheck red line no longer pops up. Another will be if Merriam-Webster adds the words to the dictionary. And of course, I would like to see a google search that produces more than a handful of results for these terms.
But more important -- and harder to measure -- will be the fundamental question: are we listening to each other’s stories better? We have a lot to learn from each other. Memria is committed to helping with this process in any way we can.