Kendall Haven Q&A
Kendall Haven is another one of those story practitioners that I can’t believe I didn’t know about till recently. His fascinating background is a study in contrasts. I’m excited to be learning about it in his responses. This Q&A will run over the next five days.
Bio: Story consultant Kendall Haven is a nationally recognized expert on the structure of stories and on the Eight Essential Elements that form the foundation of all successful narratives. Haven’s acclaimed book, STORY PROOF: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, presents the first-ever proof that “story structure” is an information-delivery-system powerhouse, evolutionarily hardwired into human brains.
For 100,000 years, humans have relied on story structure to archive and to communicate key history, knowledge, facts, beliefs, concepts, and attitudes. Evidence Haven gathered from 16 fields of scientific research (neural biology, developmental psychology, neural linguistics, clinical psychology, cognitive sciences, information theory, neural net modeling, education theory, knowledge management theory, anthropology, organization theory, narratology, medical science, narrative therapy, and, of course, storytelling and writing) has shown that this has evolutionarily rewired human brains to automatically think, understand, and remember through stories. Applying the science of story is the key to the art of effective communication for anyone who needs to inform, inspire, or educate.
A senior research scientist turned story-teller and story-engineer, Haven assists agencies, organizations, companies, and schools to master the use and power of story.
Haven has authored 30 books, performed for world-wide audiences of more than 4 million, and has led acclaimed writing workshops with 40,000+ teachers, 6,000+ professionals, and 270,000+ students.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: My undergraduate schooling, graduate school, and early work were all science-based and engineering-based, and amounted to technical applied-science research. With a doctorate in oceanography, I led a small team assessing the “environmental implications of advanced oceanic energy technologies and future energy policies” at one of the chain of national research labs.
During that time I got married. My wife has a sister, a single mom of a (then) 4-year-old. My work schedule was flexible enough so that I developed the habit of taking that boy to the park two or three times a week to play during the middle of the day. He’d romp and race. I’d eventually grow tired and need to slow him down to give myself a break.
I found that the only way I could do that was to drop into the sprawling sandbox there at the park and offer to tell him a story. He would gladly flop down into the sand to listen. I just made these stories up as I went along. I never planned them or thought about them ahead of time. I just improvised rambling stories as a self-preservation scheme to keep him quiet and give my legs and lungs a break from the running.
I swear that, every time I started a story, other kids would materialize there in the sand to listen, demanding that I start over ‘cause they missed the beginning. (As if I could remember anything I had already said.) I’d start a story and literally dozens of kids would be sucked into the sandbox like iron filings unopposeably pulled to a magnet.
Soon, adults would drift over to see why their child was hunkered down in the sandbox with this strange man who wasn’t at work in the middle of the day when he ought to be. They’d march over with every intent of calling the cops, but would arrive and say, “Oh, he’s just telling stories.” More often than not, those adults would stay to listen. There were many days when I would glance up from these stories I was making up for my nephew and see rings of 60 to 80 people standing around the sandbox to listen. There was no guarantee that the story was going anywhere. There was nothing to indicate that this was worth their while. And they didn’t care. They “got” that it was a story and they were there to listen.
Then on one specific day, it hit me — one of those “Ah Ha!” epiphanies that, if you’re lucky, you get a couple of in a lifetime. I glanced up from that day’s story at a thick ring of almost 100 onlookers and it hit me: If I sat in that sandbox and read any of the reports that I was paid reasonably good money by the federal government to create, none of these people — and especially none of the kids — would linger and listen. They weren’t there because I spoke or because it was “me.” They were there because they somehow got that it was a story I was telling. And that made it worth their time and attention — whereas a report or a science lecture would not.
I instantly fell in awe of (and much later in love with) the form and structure of this wondrous thing called “story” that held such sway and power over the human mind. Within a month I quit my job at the lab and declared myself to be a storyteller — and then, of course, had to desperately scramble to figure out how a storyteller pays rent and buys food. But that’s a different story.
Q: You’ve undergone some transitions that might be considered unexpected — West Point grad to master storyteller (with research scientist in between) and performance storyteller to story consultant in education and business. Can you talk a bit about how these transitions came about? Do you find it unusual to have made the transition from hard science to the more literary, non-analytical world of storytelling?
A: Every life path is filled with twists and turns that, at the time, feel like blind gropings through an unsolvable maze and yet, in hindsight, seem to patch together into a unified and cohesive whole. The real question, of course, is: “What was I doing in the world of military, science, and engineering in the first place?” As a child I acted stories in the back yard, wrote stories, lived in the world of imagined stories. Yet, for reasons I cannot begin to imagine now, it never occurred to me that story-writing, story-acting, or story-telling were things a grown-up person could actually do. They were private things I did for myself and for myself alone.
I went to West Point because I was named after my grandfather who was an general and, so, I had been told form the day I was born that I was going to go to West Point. As evidence of how unconscious I was as a teen, it never occurred to me to question that pronouncement. Within a day of arriving in the cadet world of gray, I clearly knew that West Point and the army were not for me. But by that time I had already joined the army and (this being 1964) if you dropped out of West Point, you were shoved on the next plane to Viet Nam. That was motive enough to stick it out and graduate.
After five years in the army I got out and either had to get a job or go to grad school. So my only question was which school and to study what? It turned out that a single book — a story — made my decision for me. I read The Year of the Whale, a story of the first year of life of a young sperm whale, and fell in love with the oceans. Decision made. Even though I get violently sea sick, I went to grad school and got a doctorate in oceanography. Ironic that a story changed my life and decided my career — and I still didn’t put it together and realize the power of story or how it controlled my life.
I liked oceanography. I deeply enjoyed those in the group I led. I liked the work. But then — wham! — the power of story slammed into my mind and consciousness (see my answer to question No. 1). I could suddenly gaze back over the first 35 years of my life (I was 36 at the time) in a whole new light. I could make sense of it.
At the age of 36 I dived into the world of storytelling, feeling that I had wasted my life up to that point. But experiences are, in truth, never truly wasted. Those 17 years spent fumbling through the world of science and engineering planted analytical processes, techniques, perspectives, and approaches deeply into my being that have, in the three decades since then, allowed me to study story, storytelling, my stories, and my storytelling in ways others from more traditional storytelling backgrounds have not been able to.
For several of my books, I have studied the history of inventions and discoveries. A preponderance of the major world advances have been made by people who substantially shifted fields or areas of work, bringing the perspectives, wisdom, and techniques from one discipline to bear on a seemingly unrelated subject area. Specialization can be as much a curse as a blessing. Cross-pollinating our minds with the teachings and processes of radically different disciplines, is, I believe, a far richer avenue to greater understanding and discovery.
To specifically answer the question: Is this rambling path to storytelling of mine the best way to enter storytelling? Probably not. Countless other pathways offer strengths of their won. But, does the path I followed have advantages? Absolutely, yes. It has allowed me to tear into the form and process of story and of storytelling in a way not possible without the infusion of science methodology. It has given me a most valuable advantage.
One final note: I disagree with the final phrase of the question. Storytelling is most certainly an analytical world. Successful teller must moment-to-moment analyze and study the audience. They must analyze their technique and compare their own to that of other tellers. They must critically and ruthlessly analyze their stories and their performance of them. Without this critical, active, and continuous analysis, the teller is doomed to mediocrity at best.
Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: This, for me, is the very heart of storytelling and of the work of every storyteller. What separates storytelling from a lecture, a talk, a presentation, or from some rambling oration on the sidewalk? It is the power and draw inherent in the “story” half of the word, “storytelling.” What grabs and holds an audience or a listener? It is the form and structure of that we interpret as story. What is the first question one must ask in order to create, craft, shape, or develop a performance piece? “What’s the story?”
Yet, we, as a culture — and even as working storytellers — tend to accept a vague, nonspecific notion of what the word story really means. Humans respond to “story” differently than they do to the same content organized into any other narrative form and structure. Every storyteller has bucket loads of anecdotal examples to support this claim. (See my answer to Question 1 for one of mine.) Science research has both qualitatively and quantitatively confirmed this same finding. The human mind processes “stories” differently than it does other narrative forms.
Words and sentences — seemingly magically — suddenly become, in the mind of the listener, a story and, at that moment, the receiver’s mind begins to respond to and to process the material differently.
Those processing differences inside the receiver’s mind are the key to storytelling’s power. The human mind processes a story differently. The human brain is literally hardwired to process stories differently than other forms of information. Our minds understand story information differently. They create meaning from stories differently. They remember and recall stories more vividly and more accurately. Stories can lift human hearts and make them soar into the heavens. Stories can literally change lives! The same information delivered in non-story form rarely does so and is often, at best, mildly amusing. Why? What — specifically — about the form and structure of story creates those amazing responses?
Thus “What is a story?” becomes the all-important core question. It lies at the heart of the allure and captivating power we daily rely on in our work. Traditionally, this has not been an easy question with which to grapple. When, in the 1990s, I was on the NSA Board (the National Storytelling Association evolved from NAPPS and was the predecessor of the current National Storytelling Network) I led a two-year effort to create an association definition of storytelling. We collected input and eventual approval from every storytelling guild and group in the country to create a short and concise definition that reflected our collective vision of what storytelling is (and is not). And then we had to add three pages of text to explain what was meant — and not meant — by virtually each and every word in those few sentences.
Luckily for us, modern science has, over the past dozen years, developed ways to peer into the living human brain and watch it work, watch it function — literally — to watch it think. From that work we can take a whole new approach to our understanding of story and begin not with what the storyteller does and says, but with what happens inside the receiver’s mind. From newly available science research we can thereby glean a very specific answer to our core question: what makes a story a story? What triggers the human mind to process it differently?
First, turn to the dictionary. Virtually every dictionary, as a primary definition of “story,” uses the wording, “a narrative account of a real or imagined event or events.” Now pause to assess that definition. Consider this sentence: “He went to the store.” That is “a narrative account of a real or imagined event.” It fully meets the dictionary’s criteria. But is that what you mean by the word “story?” Did that “story” touch your heart and soul? No. It does not. But true stories do.
Conclusion: the dictionary is wrong. It absolutely is.
Its wording is woefully inadequate. Recent neural science research can shed specific and practical light on what we mean by that word and what, structurally, a story requires in order to engender the neural and emotional responses we seek inside the listener’s mind. That, to me, is the first rational, practical way to construct an understanding of the unique properties and mandates of story.
How does this new research allow us to refine and modify the dictionary’s vague and non-specific definition? Simple. But first, my caveat: This is an incredibly condensed presentation of this material. Virtually every word in this definition has a specific, precise meaning that, if I had a chapter instead of a page, I could include.
Now an improved definition of story based on what neural science has revealed.
A story is: a character-based narrative of an interesting character’s struggles to reach a real and important goal that is initially blocked by some combination of one or more problems and conflicts that have the potential to create some real risk and danger (jeopardy) for that character, all presented in sufficient detail to make the story seem vivid, compelling, and memorable.
There is a definition that can lead you to a much deeper understanding of what drives the effectiveness of story. Those are the narrative elements that trigger into action the hardwired neural story net (a linked bundle of interconnected neurons) inside human brains. Yes, we humans are literally mentally hardwired to think, to make sense, to understand, and to remember in and through those specific story-based elements. Understanding story at that level, for me, makes all the difference.
Q: I get the idea from your Web site that you didn’t get into to proving the scientific aspects of storytelling until you were challenged to do so by NASA (see first paragraph on this page). To what extent did you find it easier to “sell” the idea of storytelling to your constituencies once you had developed the scientific proof and written Story Proof?
A: It depends on the audience to whom I am trying to sell the idea of story and storytelling. Most teachers and librarians don’t need the science references. They already accept the value and power of story and of storytelling. School district (or state) administrators often do need the science to put story and storytelling on an equal footing with other well-researched aspects of language in the curriculum. Arts councils typically do not. Typically, Departments of Education do. Most scientific and engineering agencies and organizations need that grounding into the research world with which they are familiar and through which they do their own work. So do most in the military-industrial complex.
In general, is it easier to “sell” storytelling with sufficient scientific proof in my pocket. It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. It is better to bore believers with a dash of science they don’t need than to leave skeptics firmly entrenched in their opposition to storytelling by omitting the science rationale they needed.
Let me use a church-based analogy. Those in the choir don’t need the science. (They’re already convinced and committed.) But they don’t mind hearing it shouted from the pulpit. The congregation members lounging in the nave are reassured by the existence of scientific backing and often need such reminders and reinforcements to re-charge and to maintain their faith.
But the science that explains the power of story is most valuable to those out on the street who haven’t yet been willing to step into the church at all. They, typically, are subject to the BIG MYTHS about storytelling and need the science to make that leap of faith that will allow them to risk poking their heads inside to see what the fuss is all about.
In most parts of our culture, science research has credibility. It is worthy of our time and consideration. It is not summarily dismissed. That credibility will open doors, justify what appear to be giant leaps of faith, and buy opportunities that anecdotes and personal testimony never can.
The power and effectiveness of story do not come from the science. The act of storytelling does not involve the science. But the availability of science research that explains the structure, process, and effectiveness of storytelling can offer a rational explanation for the seemingly non-rational human response to story. Further, that research provides insights into the use and control of story architecture that make it attractive, reasonable, and (ultimately) doable to those who, suffering from the Three Great Myths about story, have felt that they can’t effectively use storytelling; that they will appear foolish if they try; and that they will be ridiculed, not taken seriously, or otherwise have their professional reputation harmed if they do use storytelling.
The science allows me to expand the community of storytelling believers and effective story users in ways I could not expand that population without it.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: I do not agree with the premise of this question. Where is this explosive growth? The number of storytelling festivals in this country is not increasing (and, in fact, has decreased through the first half of this decade). The total annual audience for storytelling festivals is holding steady (at best) or — for many festivals—is in decline. I see no explosive increase in the number of night clubs, comedy clubs, or theaters featuring storytelling and professional storytellers on their stages. Ever since the plague of No Child Left Behind descended like a wet blanket over education, the number of schools hiring storytellers has radically decreased in almost every state. There are fewer full-time working storytellers supporting a family with their storytelling earnings now than there were in the 1990s.
So where is this “explosive growth?” Most point at the business community, at organizational storytelling. I do see growth of interest in storytelling in corporations, in agencies, and in organizations. I see a large increase in the use of the word “storytelling” over the past 15 years. I have documented phenomenal growth in the number of people and organizations that promote themselves as organizational (business, corporate, etc.) storytellers and storytelling consultants.
But do I see real growth in actual, effective storytelling? No. I don’t see it. I see PR firms, advertising companies, and HR departments using the word. I see communications departments leading focus groups to discover that the words “story” and “storytelling” have a strong positive image with the public and, so, need to be worked into release copy.
But as I have researched it for ISC (the International Storytelling Center) over the past six years, the real growth in storytelling has been halting and gradual — much more like the tortoise than the hare. Over these last several years of the “Great Recession” the corporate and nonprofit organizational use of storytelling has actually decreased.
If there is growth in storytelling in this country, it is primarily housed in the PR use of the word “storytelling,” not in the actual effective practice of it.
Few of the people now claiming to be organizational storytellers are pedigreed with detailed backgrounds in, and accredited study of, story architecture or storytelling. Most have emerged from PR and corporate-communications departments. That lack of understanding makes the current bulge of storytelling activity (if there is one) more of a fad than a solid advancement.
The problem with fads is that they soon fade. Once faded, they are much harder to resurrect. I have interviewed more than 40 individuals who market themselves (most fairly successfully) as organizational storytellers. None could effectively define “story.” Most couldn’t even offer a concise definition at all — accurate or inaccurate, effective or ineffective.
So I’ll volley this question back with a counter question: If this is, in fact, a period of storytelling growth and opportunity, what are we in the storytelling community doing to ensure that what surfaces in the public and organizational consciousness is not some slick oversold fad version of storytelling, but the process and practice of genuine and effective storytelling?
Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: Call me a charter member of the Luddites of America. I don’t participate actively in social media. But let me break my answer into comments on three separate uses of social media.
As a vehicle to actually tell and share stories: I haven’t seen evidence that they are effective vehicles through which to share stories. Stories come alive in the details. Details create vivid imagery in the receiver’s mind — sensory, character, and event details in the text, and details provided through gesture, voice, and/or facial expression. Research has shown that a primary cue listeners use to distinguish stories from other narrative forms is the density of sensory details (significantly higher in stories). But those details require space on the page and/or time on the video.
The social media emphasize (if not mandate) brevity. At best, they allow the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version” of a story. Thus, social media force the writer to imply many key story elements and force the receiver to fill in those massive story gaps on their own — with no chance for positive feedback or reaction (as would happen live) and with no guidance from other audience members. The teller must abdicate much of his/her responsibility to construct and convey a story and leave it to the reader to assume the shape and content of the full story.
Research shows that readers aren’t very good at that feat. It has long been a guiding principle of writing that, if there is any possible way for readers to misread and misinterpret what you write, they will. The purpose of laborious and tedious editing is to make the writing so precise that it cannot be misread and misinterpreted. The form and nature of social media preclude that level of precision and, thus, of effective storytelling. That means that storytelling through social media tends to isolate, rather than to connect and expand, groups. The only ones who will “get” these abbreviated story snippets are those in the same group as the author (with the same banks of prior knowledge, with the same perspectives, etc.) who will be likely to make the correct assumptions to fill in the story. Others will be excluded from the point, nuance, and meaning of the story. That’s the long way of saying that, no, I don’t see that the social media — as currently constructed — are effective avenues for disseminating and telling stories.
For interpersonal connectedness: It has become so common a research conclusion that it has almost reached cliché status: Social media connect us — but not with the people in the same room with us. These media don’t connect us person to person. They connect us person to machine to person. Two people sitting at dinner both text and check emails instead of talking to each other. We text and check Web sites while on dates and at parties — rather than focusing on the people and experiences in the room with us. We learn to think of “personal relationships” as developing without requiring the physical presence of the other person.
Research results are beginning to emerge from a variety of fields that point to the net negatives of this trend. Those negatives, I think, must be significantly multiplied when considering the act and process of storytelling. For eons storytelling has been a live, teller-to-audience, shared experiential event. Both teller and listener have a role to play to create a successful and effective telling experience. In the 1990s when the National Storytelling Association board sought to create an association definition of storytelling, one element of that definition insisted upon by virtually every guild and working teller in the country was that storytelling, as we understood and practiced it, described the performance of a story to a live audience. That, a short 14 years ago, is what the American storytelling community said storytelling was. How can that be compatible with social media that mandate each individual’s connection be funneled through personal (individual) electronic devices?
Yes, there are substantial benefits of social media. Yes, social media are alluring and “fun.” Yes they make us feel “connected.” But I suspect that, 15 years from now, American culture will bemoan the degradation in general interpersonal communication skills that comes from having so much of our human contacts filtered through personal electronics. This is not a phenomenon that might surface at some distant future time. American schools are, in almost every state, already reporting declines in student ability both to write and — especially — in their ability and willingness to stand in class and speak (debate, orally report, orally discuss, etc.). Students at virtually every grade are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with having to stand and talk directly to their classmates and teachers. As a storyteller, as one who values the ability to effectively, powerfully, write and to speak, this trend is quite disturbing.
As a marketing/communications tool: Having said all that, social media can be effectively used to broadcast a message or information, to connect with others, or to gather story material (to connect a teller with a wider community of sources for their story information) and, certainly, as a marketing tool to promote and advertise available stories, organizations, or other story-based products.
Will social media survive? Certainly — with or without my participation. Use them to connect with friends, clients, groups, organizations, or others. But I see red flags when I think of using them as a greater part of a story- or storytelling-related career/business. I suspect — and fervently hope — that the current manifestation of these social media represents the field’s infancy and that future incarnations will move to alleviate some of these swirling negatives.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: I am torn between two and, so will offer both.
First: Know effective story architecture as well as you know effective oral delivery. If you master the form and process of building effective stories, you make your storytelling much easier. Storytelling becomes a burden only when you have to rely on performance technique to drag an audience through mediocre material.
Second: When you orally tell a story to an audience, how you say it is more powerful than what you say — the specific words you say. Too many tellers focus on the words and feel pressured to “get the words right.” Research has consistently shown that we humans don’t really listen to your specific words. We listen to the gist. We think we hear and remember your exact wording. But we don’t. We hear the gist, and in our own minds create our own wording to express that gist and then remember that self-created wording thinking that it is an accurate recording of what you said.
What story listeners do quite accurately note and record is how you say it — the energy, emotion, passion, etc. with which you say it. Listeners’ interpretation of how you say it drives their process of creating visual imagery and specific language to attach to your story and to file into memory.
[Editor’s note/image credit: Image at left is of storyteller Robin Bady. I felt photos of her on her site really embodied Kendall’s words about “energy, emotion, passion” and figured she wouldn’t mind the publicity. Visit her site to see her wonderfully expressive photos.]