Twenty-three years ago, I wrote a column about how storytelling was an effective tool to communicate ideas.
''People just don't simply hear stories,'' Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., a business ethics professor at Harvard Business School, told me. ''It triggers things -- pictures, thoughts and associations -- in their minds.'' That makes the stories ''more powerful and engaging,'' he said.
The challenge for such storytelling was captured in the titles my editor gave the column: “Storytelling Only Works if Tales are True.” If in the effort to convey an idea, the storyteller clearly crosses the line and simply makes stuff up, the power of the story is lost on the audience.
“The real challenge for any storyteller in business,” I concluded, “is to know that for the message of the story to ring true, the facts of it must have integrity as well.”
I bring this up now because I recently came across two examples of not-for-profit organizations using storytelling as powerful ways to address the needs of two different groups of people: military veterans and hospitalized children.
SongwritingWith: Soldiers (https://songwritingwithsoldiers.org/) runs regular retreats for veterans at which, among other things, they work with seasoned songwriters to help them tell their own stories through a song. (Full disclosure: My favorite oldest grandchild is active military although he has no association with SW:S.) The veterans are not professional musicians, but work with those who are. Judging from some of the songs that can be found online, the results are quite something – not just for the quality of the songs, but mostly because veterans are given a way to articulate their experiences that otherwise might have gone untold. (There are other groups using music as a therapeutic tool with military veterans, some of which can be found here: https://www.operationwearehere.com/musictherapy.html.)
Writers Inc. (https://www.writersincorporated.org/) also uses storytelling as a therapeutic tool, but the participants in this program are hospitalized children. Working with seasoned writers and editors, hospitalized children are helped to tell their own stories. Some of these stories end up as published books. Others create illustrated cards or painting. Writers Inc. works to find the best outlet for each child to tell his, her or their story. The child retains all copyright to any book published. (Full disclosure: One of my favorite former graduate students is one of the writers working with hospitalized children through Writers Inc.)
There is no charge to the military veterans or hospitalized children who participate in either program, which is a pretty good story itself.
Writers Inc. and SW:S are not the only programs that aim to use the arts as a method of enabling hospitalized children or military veterans to share and manage their respective experiences. But these two are strong examples of how powerful storytelling can be.
During a season where charitable giving is often more top of mind, I share the story of these two not-for-profits that operate based on the kindness of those who see fit to help foot the bill for the cost of operating. Of course, the right thing is for each of us to decide what charitable efforts we choose to support. Nevertheless, both SW:S and Writers Inc. have a compelling story to tell.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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