What’s Your Story?
by Bill Carr
“What’s your story?” was a question once asked of me on an airplane by my seatmate on a crowded winter flight from Halifax to Calgary. He, like me, was a seasoned traveller and I guess he figured that since we were hunkered down together for a long flight, we might as well talk. It was either that or we sit for five hours, inches away from each other, acting like we were alone. I have done that and it is not fun.
The direct simplicity of his question was disarming and I laughed out loud at the emotion and confusion it evoked. What is my story? Do I have one or several and which ones would I tell a stranger if I wanted to truly answer that question? Do I start with the usual litany of where I am from and what I do for a living? Do I give him the elevator speech, of who I am, or do I launch into a tale of a young artist who has become an old artist still trying to find his place in the world? The possibilities were endless, even if the attention span was not. As an instructor and facilitator of workshops on storytelling and speech making I knew I had the skills to answer this man most effectively, but I really wasn’t sure where to start.
So I applied what I teach and the first rule of connecting with an audience is to know something about them, so as I buckled my seat belt, I turned the tables and said, “My name is Bill and my story depends a great deal on whom I am talking to.” He laughed and introduced himself and we were off on a series of stories about our lives, both work and professional, that kept us both thoroughly engaged for the entire flight.
As I look back on that discussion I am surprised at the intimacy that the situation evoked. The connections that each of our stories elicited led to other stories and deep discussions of issues and passions we held collectively or singularly. It was remarkable for me to discover that his choice of story affected my choice of story and therefore, very likely that my choice of story affected his. And even more significantly, the choices that we each made all led us to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
As I told him one story in particular about my Dad, I realized that his story about his own father had caused me to reflect differently and relate the story of my Dad in a new and more insightful way. Through our mutual storytelling there seemed to be an instantaneous and mutual growth of our individual understandings. He expressed just that sentiment when he said as an introduction to one of his stories, “I never thought of it like that before but I just realized from what you told me that my brother could have been right!” He laughed, shook his head and launched into a story about his brother in which he openly reexamined his own recollections and judgments he had made.
Speaking and storytelling has a wonderful ability to reframe things for an audience but there is also a delightful and insightful reframing that can also occur in us as the storyteller. Keeping ourselves open to discovery through an empathic exchange of stories can offer a deepening and richness to our own lives. So, the next time someone asks you, “What’s your story?” remember, it is not just for their benefit that you share a tale, it may very well be for yours as well. That flight to Calgary was one of the quickest and most enjoyable business flights I can remember. In the sharing of stories both the speaker and the listener can be transformed for the better.