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Storytelling as "The Fabric of Society"

February 21, 2012

I had the privilege last night of attending a talk given by Hollywood veteran and long-time Seattle resident Tom Skerritt (Profile, Filmography) at a monthly meeting of The Executive Network of Seattle (see TENS). The theme of his talk was about "storytelling", and during the evening he had some very relevant lessons to share.

To clarify though, this was not one of those manufactured paid events where someone who has made a success of themselves, though with no apparent connection to the business world, is the pitchman for an event that sells itself on their "lessons for business" (as in "Leadership Lessons I Learned From Ballet" or "How My Pre-School Teaching Career Prepared Me For Business"). Tom was not billed as someone with a magic bullet for business. However, much of what he had to say had a lot of relevance in both the personal and business realm and did leave me thinking on the way home last night. He was very real, and very authentic.

Tom's main premise was around his passion for "storytelling". Within his expressed disdain for what he considers a broken model in Hollywood and a genuine concern for the impact technology has on our "storytelling culture", there were a few tidbits that I took away that were good lessons for those of us who are always looking for ways to improve - either personally or professionally.

  1. "Whatever you put out there (of yourself) will come back to you...whether that's luck, or fear or whatever else it is".  I've always felt strongly about being a "giving" person with the belief that  it will always come back to you, but I was struck by the more universal nature of this version...where "luck" can be replaced by "fear". "If you put your fear out there, everything you see will feed that fear". How many people do you know like that? In this statement I suddenly recognized a number of colleagues and friends I know and now know better what they need and what I can do for them. What side of yourself are you putting out there for the world to see?

  2. "Life is supposed to be a challenge...I've never felt comfortable with safe."  This may not sound very original or profound as it echoes a lot of business and self-help books that have always been out there. But when it comes from someone who started in a blue-collar neighborhood in Detroit and has then had enough success to last fifty years in Hollywood, it makes me realize this is more about our daily challenge to continuously innovate - for ourselves and for our business. Success is something we need to treat not as an end-goal, but as a marker that points to our next challenge.

  3. "Everyone can be a storyteller". Tom's main message last night, it is eerily reminiscent of much of the monotonous advice we always get that originally led me to create this blog ("Everyone can blog! Everyone should blog!"). But what Tom was getting at was much deeper than that. It is the truth that in some ways, we are all the embodiment of our own stories, collected and assembled from the odds and ends of our lives and careers, the experiences we've had and the events we have seen and heard. And without a willingness to tell stories and learn how to craft them well, how can we "put ourselves out there"? How will we be able to connect with other people in meaningful ways if we are perceived as "playing it safe"? And when it comes to your business, does that have a real, authentic story to tell as well?

Finally, there's another side of the coin that also struck me last night. With the lightning-quick speed of our high-tech information-absorbing culture, fueled by things like social media and 300 cable channels, how well do we actual listen to good stories anymore? While thinking through all the ways you might be able to start telling your story better, take another moment to think about how well you listen when someone else is telling theirs. In a world where everyone can be perceived as an expert on something, real value might come from demonstrating an appreciation for a good story just as much as telling one. Do your clients think you are listening to their story? Do they know yours? Step away for a moment from your twitter feed and your daily planning of Facebook updates, and do spend a bit of quiet time thinking about the story you have to tell.

For those interested in local efforts to maintain storytelling as "the fabric of our society", Tom also walks the walk with his passion for The Film School he started in 2004. With 500 graduates already among us, Tom is dedicated to improving the art of storytelling through " a unique, visionary school that could develop Seattle’s great wealth of young, creative filmmakers." Learn more about them here: TheFilmSchool.org