Jumpstart Storytelling 
 April 12, 2003: Seth Kahan
Smithsonian Associates 2003

Seth Kahan

Transcript of the April 12, 2003 session at the Smithsonian Associates

Jumpstart Storytelling: Its Purpose
The theme of the storytelling
Seth's story
Clusters and chains
The participants' stories
    Allan's story
    Sharon's story
    Barb's story
Paul's commentary


  • Seth: Iím very excited about starting the session today with Jumpstart Storytelling. Iím going to tell you about and then weíre going to do it. Whatís so exciting to me is that Jumpstart Storytelling is an effective way of starting all of our stories, together, but in a coherent productive way. Jumpstart Storytelling was developed with three purposes in mind
    • One was to introduce people to a significant number of the other participants in a very short period of time, and to do it through creating a felt sense of rapport. Often when we meet people at a conference, you know, itís: ďHi, my name is Seth Kahan, and Iím a consultant and a speaker and blah blah blah.Ē Then you go on to the next. And something is missing: an ingredient of depth. 
    • Jumpstart Storytelling helps to provide the missing ingredient of depth. It gives you a sense of who the other person is. When we want to do effective collaboration, itís often mistaken that the way to do that is by creating an environment where everybody likes each other. I can tell you from my experience in the world of business that collaboration often takes place in environments that lack mutual admiration. (laughter) But what people do need is a respect for their contribution, and a knowledge of how that contribution can be made, by every participant. Jumpstart Storytelling gives you an introduction to ten or fifteen other people in the room, so that you know a little bit about who they are and how they operate, so that you can effectively collaborate with them through the course of the day. 
    • The other thing that Jumpstart Storytelling does is to move the conversation off the podium and out on to the floor. This is critical for effective collaboration. It pushes us into the business at hand. Now today, the business at hand is: what is the realm of storytelling in organizations? So thatís where we begin.
    I developed this technique through my experience through designing multi-cultural collaboration events at the World Bank, through my recent research at the Center for Association Leadership, where I am looking at what it takes to make conventions more effective, conventions that could be as small as 30 or 40 or as large as 10,000. Much of it is drawn from what I have learned from the Center for Narrative Studies, which is conducting an ongoing seminar which is here in Washington DC, which some of you participated in yesterday. Paul Costello is the director
        So hereís how Jumpstart Storytelling works. In a minute, Iím going to ask each of you to tell a group of people around you, a ninety-second story from your personal life, something really happened to you. Iím going to ask you to do it on a particular topic. That topic is: what do you aspire to today? What do you hope is going to happen? Let me give you an example: 
        What I hope is going to happen is: when this day is over, weíre going to have 102 new people who are involved with us, actively creating, lending their creativity to this organizational storytelling phenomenon, which is blossoming as a valid toolset in organizations today. Thatís what I hope for. 
    I can look out at you and I can see your faces and I know you have a valuable contribution to this work. And I also know your perspective is extremely different from all the people who have been participating in it thus far. So Iím excited by that. So thatís my aspiration: that at the end of the day, weíre all involved together, having a lot of fun and developing this new field. 
        So think for a second. Whatís your aspiration? What are you hoping to get out fo today? Just make a note in your mind what that might be. 
        Now Iím going to ask you to think about a story from your personal life that serves as an anchor for that aspiration. All of hope for things because of experiences that weíve already had. Something that happened in our past. What has happened in your past, that you would hope for that? Iím going to craft a ninety-second story and share it with your neighbor, in just a second. But let me give you an example. Hereís my ninety-second story:

       In 2001, I participated in the first Smithsonian event on organizational storytelling. I sat in the audience and watched John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, Larry Prusak and Katalina Groh. 
       In 2002, I stood here at the organizational storytelling event, co-presenting with Steve Denning.
       In 2003, Iím joined by seven other people, in addition to Steve Denning, in making this presentation. 
       I am watching the exponential growth happen around me. 
       In 2001, I started a Storytelling in Business at Yahoo. We had seven people. Today thereís a website, a collaborative space on-line. There are over 250 people involved in There are now four local subsites in Amsterdam, Boston, San Diego and in Washington DC. So I have seen the exponential growth. And Iíve been part of this large-scale activation. And thatís the root of my aspiration for today.

    So now weíre going to get into tables of twelve and then weíll tell some ninety-second stories.

                  (There were then two rounds of storytelling in groups of twelve.)

    Seth: So now, at the end of two rounds of storytelling, let me make a couple of points. 
         First, the energy changed between the first and the second round. The first time, it was frenetic and upbeat. In the second round, the energy level dropped, but in a positive way. It was calmer.
         The other positive thing I noticed was that in the second round, people were ignoring me more. They were just going at their own pace. Just settling into the new community of twelve. Weíre here for this little chunk of time. Weíre going to spend that time together. And thatís a good thing if you want to develop an atmosphere of collaboration, since thatís what this is about. 
         You have now met about 20 people Ė just a fifth of the people in the room. Youíve listened to a little piece of who they are.

    As we begin our day together, we not only want to hear each otherís stories and piece together the mosaic of who we are, as a community, but we also want to float to the top, the threads that resonate with us. Those threads are not necessarily on the agenda. Those threads or issues are not necessarily something that the planners have thought about. But you have! You just bring them to the table by virtue of who you are. 
    Now, take a moment of reflection and think back to all the stories you just heard. I know they just ran across you like and you canít sift out too many of them. But ask yourself: was there one that spoke to you, that resonated deeply with you? Maybe there was more than one. But pick one now that has that quality to it. A story that you felt had something special. It could have been a deep concern that you have. A fear. An issue. An emotion. A resonance. It really doesnít matter. What matters is that the story went deeply into you. Pick that story and place your hand on the shoulder of the person who told itÖ.
        (The participants formed clusters and chains and then the three storytellers who had most hands on their shoulderes were identified.)
    Seth: So the three storytellers who are up here told stories that are resonant with a large percentage of the group. Whatever their stories are about are important to our day. Itís important to our community. And itís important to organizational storytelling. 
    When the storyteller is finished, Iím going to ask you not to applaud. Instead, Iím going to ask you to take 20 seconds of silence and notice how the story is moving into you. Just be, with the experience of the story. 

    Allan: Once upon a time, not so many years ago, when I was in an involuntary career transition, (laughter) I took a look at my life path, and the things I had done. I had worked in theater. I had been a newspaper reporter. I had been an attorney and a judge and a mediator. I had worked in conflict resolution. I had been a real estate agent. I had been a marketer. I had been a consultant.  I was thinking: what do I do now? And when I looked at the threads, I realized that in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of places, I had always been a storyteller.

    At the same time, I was starting to do some coaching work and I began to appreciate how deeply I carried personal, cultural, historical stories with me. And one of my coaching teachers asked me a very powerful question. 

    He said, "We all live in story. The question is: do we have our story or does our story have us?"
       Now I'm working in a corporate setting where I do competitive intelligence and building strategic partnerships. Around me, everyone thinks this is about analysis and revenue streams. But I realize it is about telling convincing stories about the world we're living in and persuasive stories about the world we can create.
    Sharon: This scares me to death. (laughter
        At a time of great professional and personal accomplishment -- I was in graduate school.  I had a great career. I had a consulting practice Ė my thirty-six year old stepson was diagnosed with leukemia. He died two years later. 
       And in the middle of that, my thirty-two year old stepdaughter ended up in the hospital for four months in intensive care. In the middle of all of that, a leader that I respect a great deal told a story about his own personal development; of the asteroids that had hit his life. He told a story about learning to deal with professional failure, and personal asteroids.
       And there was a moment in listening to him that I realized that I .
    develop out of my failures, and sometimes because of the things I didn't really ask for that were pretty horrible
       And that this is true for all of us. 
       When we ask people to come to work and be whole people and to create whole organizations, there's a whole piece there that I haven't really wanted to look at very much. I had left some folks high and dry at times in their lives when they really needed my support. Partly it was just being able to tell their story.

    Barb: My husbandís chuckling because he knows I like to do this.
    What you see before you is an owner of a consulting company who speaks at national conferences and all around the world. But what you really see before you is a sixth-grader, whoís being told by her speech pathologist, ďYou should never speak in public.Ē (Laughter) 

    She changed my life that day. And I became a nurse instead of a teacher, because thatís what girls could do

    back then. Nursing or teaching. But that nurse became a teacher, became a writer, became a consultant, became an administrator, and she would have staff meetings, and management meetings, and she would tell them stories. 
    It got to the point where my management team would come in and say, ďHereís the problem. Whatís the story?Ē And I discovered that there was a real message in the power of stories, and that stories ďtalkedĒ. 
    But what I also discovered is that weíre all putting our bulbs in the ground and I love gardens. Iíd start out with ďno flowers,Ē when I moved to a house, and by springtime, a few yearís further, Iíd have more flowers, because I put bulbs in the ground. Except that where Iíd put those bulbs, like that speech pathologist, is not where they end up. Because you see, the squirrels moved the bulbs. And we have the power to move those bulbs in our lives too. And what we put and where we put them, and where they end up, we never know, because life is a garden, and we have all kinds of bulbs. 
    And Iím here today, to get some new bulbs for my flower garden. I donít know what theyíll get me or where theyíll be, because when that speech pathologist told me that, when I was a young girl, I was crushed. But wasnít that a great bulb that I got after all? 
    Seth:  Stories upon stories upon stories. These three stories have articulated something of our collective consciousness. What? I think itís too early to tell. But there are important treasures here. Not only in the three stories that were told up here, but in the two hundred or so, that were told in the last hour. 

       Paul Costello will now offer you his reflections on the session. Youíll notice heís wearing a tie from the ďdream time.Ē Paul has cosmic connections.

    Paul: Itís great to be here and what a fantastic start. I donít know whether you believe in reincarnation. Iím wearing my New Age Angel on my lapel here, but if we did believe in reincarnation I think that Seth in the dark mysteries of time past must have been a shaman. He brings a kind of shaman energy to our work and he inspires us. 

    I wore this tie this morning because it connects me to my Australian roots, but also what Seth demonstrated, is something that the ancient 

    Australian peoples live their lives around stories. But for them, stories were more than just tales to be shared around the campfire. When we were little kids at school, we learned that Captain Cook mapped Australia, and all these great navigators. In fact, the aboriginal people used stories as maps. 
    I am sure many of you have read the wonderful book by Bruce Chatwin called Songlines. But if you havenít itís the notion that aboriginals told stories that included mountains and valleys and rivers and trees and rocks. Thatís what they told, so that they could find their way through that vast vast continent. And thereís a songline connection between the tribal peoples in the far north-western corner of that continent, down through the middle, to the far south-eastern corner. Itís a songline. 
    And didnít we see a songline, or a storyline enacted in what Seth did? With all the hands on the shoulders, it was moving feeling for me, it connects today with the past. Weíre not inventing anything new. This is the wisdom that peoples of ancient civilizations have known about. Weíre the ones who have forgotten it. And a day like today allows us to recapture that wisdom. What Seth has started us doing is to have our stories map our aspirations for the day. Theyíve mapped our hopes. Theyíve mapped our dreams. Stories map our memories. In those memories, we draw back to go forward. So letís look forward to what the next map is going to be, as we move to our next module.
    Steve:Wasnít that terrific?
    Voices: Yes. Absolutely.

    Go to the next session on April 12, 2003: Alicia Korten on Core Value Stories

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