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Storytelling – big-S and small-s

You stand there, staring at the microphone in fear. There are people beside you, behind you, all around you; in front, a seeming sea of faces, all looking at you, hungry, like lions in the arena… Struggling to shake off that image, yet frozen to the spot, you open your mouth to speak. “I… have received… I… I…” – Whatever you do, no matter how hard you try, the words just will not come. And though no-one says a word in return, you feel their disappointment, and your shame… that crushing sense of failure that follows you everywhere.

This is the opening scene of the film The King’s Speech, of course. It’s the opening scene to storytelling in the big-S sense – a big story, full of colourful characters such as Britain’s King George VI, his wife Elizabeth, and the eccentric yet effective speech-therapist Lionel Logue. But behind this Big Story are a myriad of much smaller, more intimate stories, like that incident above – and without them, the big story wouldn’t exist.

When we talk about story and the Zahmoo story-bank, some people think that it’s only for Hollywood-style big-S storytelling – all the complexities of three-act structure, the Hero’s Journey pattern, character-arc and the rest. And yes, it’s true that you can use Zahmoo to support that kind of storytelling. Yet its real purpose is to support small-s storytelling – the small everyday stories that matter so much to families, to communities and to business.

Those small stories do have a specific structure of their own, with specific content:

  • one or more people – King George VI (as the Duke of York, at that time), in the real-life version of that story above
  • time – in that case, the closing-event of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition
  • place – Wembley Stadium in London, in that example
  • a sequence of events – there, his real-life struggle to speak

And, usually, some kind of ‘punch-line’, a meaning or lesson-learned – in that incident, a painfully real illustration of how it feels to be unable to express ourselves in front of others.

Those personal details are what anchor the story, and make it so real. That’s why those small stories matter – and why it’s worthwhile managing those stories in a story-bank.

And, if we want, we can use stories from this small-s storytelling to underpin big-S storytelling. To do that, we’d change some of the details of a small story, or leave them intentionally ambiguous – as in that opening story above, in which anyone with a fear of public-speaking could place themselves all too easily. We’d change the people in each small-story, to match our made-up characters; and we’d then weave those amended small-stories together, using the three-act structure and suchlike, to make our larger story. That’s how every Big Story works.

Big-S storytelling, small-s storytelling: they’re related, but they’re not the same – and, in your Zahmoo story-bank, it’s the small stories that’ll matter most.

Many thanks to Shawn Callahan of Anecdote for suggesting the theme for this post.

Image credit: Microphone by Hidde de Vries under a Creative Commons BY-2.0 licence.

August 1st, 2012 by Zahmoo
Filed in: For Business, For Community, For Family
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Zahmoo is a story bank for collecting and sharing your family and business stories.