Sean Buvala Q&A
I am so excited to bring you a Q&A from Sean Buvala, a frequent commenter to A Storied Career. A storytelling “purist,” Sean keeps me on my toes, makes me think, and keeps me from descending too far into appreciating the sillier interpretations of storytelling and uses of applied storytelling. He is extremely active in many corners of the storytelling world and is a prolific Twitterer. His Storyteller.net is about the same age as Quintessential Careers, the parent site of A Storied Career, and his description later in this Q&A of the pioneering aspect of his site sounds much like the journey of QuintCareers.
Bio: (From one of Sean’s Web sites): Sean describes the collection of stories in his head as “life and legend” representing the mix of stories from his experiences, myth and legend from many cultures, sacred stories and observations of shared life events. As a storyteller, Sean primarily works with teens and adults in business and corporate settings. However, schools and libraries use him all the time for younger children. He describes his style as somewhere between “in your life and in your face” depending on the needs of the group he’s telling to/with at any given gathering.
Sean has been presenting and storytelling “on the road” since 1985. He’s traveled to perform and present workshops in dozens of states and to hundreds of organizations in those states. His audiences have ranged from just a few people gathered in a living room to several thousand teens and adults. He is the founder of Storyteller.net, the largest online resource for storytelling and storytellers.
Sean’s experience also involves training and design for the telecommunication and hospitality industry. He’s done customer service instruction/team development for companies ranging from government to faith based organizations to major corporations. He’s taught and told for companies such as Wells Fargo, AT&T, Unilever, the Arizona Courts and more.
Most important of all, Sean is the father of four daughters and husband of one wife. He lives in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. His wife says that when he is home from the road, he is a great cook.
Q&A with Sean Buvala:
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: Storytelling has been bedrock to all cultures through history. In that, I mean the process of telling a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end to convey a particular thought, a societal idea or to entertain. With the advent of so many electronic communications, people are just growing more aware of their need for deeper communication and connectedness. Our neighbors are no longer the people who live next door. Now, neighbors are the communities and people we self select. Since so many people are now engaged in long distance communities, families and friends spread out, people are feeling a lack of something in their day-to-day existence. That longing is being met in sharing of story in its many forms.
There are many folktales that talk about wholeness or one person separated into two beings. It is only by coming to terms with one’s story and wrestling with oneself that these two parts can be made whole. Our stories are native and entwined in each of us.
For me, I do not think that I see the question as you see it. I am not so sure “storytelling” is growing explosively. I know that the use of the word “storytelling” is growing at a rapid clip, and it is being applied to all forms of communication. Therefore, now, everyone who shares any idea at all is a “storyteller.” I think this does a disservice to other art forms. For me, storytelling is the “mother” of all other communications. A person who excels at writing a story is an author, not a storyteller. A person who creates great videos is not a “digital storyteller” but rather a gifted filmmaker. There has been a dilution of the word storytelling. If everything we do is storytelling, then nothing is storytelling. I am neither a gifted author nor a filmmaker and do not wish to be. I am a storyteller and my work needs the presence of an audience right in front of me. Without an audience and immediate interaction, then whatever the artist is doing is not storytelling. It may be any of many other gifted and needed art forms.
I am critiqued for expressing my understanding of what is and is not story. Essentially, I am accused of keeping people “out of the tent.” That is not my intention at all. “Story” has many ways to be expressed and there are tents all over the field. In my tent, story is presented in an oral expression (or ASL manual communication) called storytelling that requires a live audience of at least one person. Over there, there’s another tent filled with talented filmmakers expressing story. In a third tent, maybe there are talented dancers, scrapbookers, or authors. I do not want to dilute any of the art forms by having to cram us all into the same metaphorical tent. I want the freedom to go enjoy the filmmakers in their tent and maybe even join them in a few attempts of my own. I also know that all the artists in those other tents will benefit by coming and learning foundational things in the storytelling tent.
I think I know that we in the storytelling communities have lost grip on the word “storytelling” and I am banging a drum that no one will really hear. Nevertheless, my place in life is to call the crowd to many different ways of thinking and says, “Look over here.” I would be untrue to my art and myself if I did anything less.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: I think that definition of storytelling is critical for it is within the lines of definition we get the most freedoms. I have worked for some time with the following definition. “Storytelling is the intentional sharing of a narrative in words and actions for the benefit of both the listener and the teller.”
Just quickly, “intentional” means that not everything we do is storytelling. Storytelling is a planned activity and process. “Narrative” means what is being talked about has a beginning, middle, and end. “Sharing” means that there is an audience in front of the teller which can be one person or thousands. “Benefit” means both the listener and the teller leave the sharing of story as a changed person. Even after telling some stories for decades, I still hear new ideas from even my oldest stories. Usually, what comes as new to me is when the listener tells me what they hear. I am not a fan of giving the morals to stories. I would rather the audience work that out with me instead of being told what to think.
That is a rather quick take on my definition of storytelling. We usually go rather in depth in our workshops on this definition so the audience can add to or take away as they need.Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: I like Twitter (and I have the fun ID of @storyteller) for the immediacy of having some very smart people sending bits and pieces of wisdom and fun my way. I enjoy podcasting as a way to let people think about ideas. Although audio stories in podcasts in themselves are not storytelling, recorded pieces do open the door to live interaction. I have had some fun with YouTube, most recently making a video-podcast of our “gestures” training. Storyteller.net embraced technology and storytelling very early on. I love seeing what’s next in the tech world since I am one of the “early adopters” we keep hearing about.Q: Your Web site, Storyteller.net is a major resource for performance storytellers and others interested in storytelling. The site is almost 12 years old, and even at age 10, you noted, “Ten years is forever in Internet terms.” What inspired you to start the site, and what has motivated you to keep it going?
A: Thanks. It is always interesting to see how people perceive Storyteller.net. It is not as much of a performance storytelling site as it is a clearinghouse for the many ways story can be expressed. When we began Storyteller.net a dozen years ago, there was nothing like it on the Internet. Actually, there was barely an Internet. We are older than Google. Our goal, back in 1995, was to expose people to storytelling in ways they might not have thought of before going to the site. It was unheard of that you could listen to stories online. We hoped that people might turn off their computers once they experienced recorded stories and book one of the storytellers in the directory to help them create storytelling in their schools, workplaces and other places in their communities.
We also wanted to create community online via such offerings as the articles, written and audio stories, events calendar and even, at one point, a “playground.” Back in our earliest days, the playground and the “storytelling coloring pictures” were the most used sections of the site. I still get hits for “coloring pictures” several times a month. We pulled the playground from the site as we thought we were just promoting the idea that storytelling was just for children.
We really were on the cutting edge of blogging, article marketing, directory listings, and podcasting before any of those words existed. The technology barely existed. Now, all the things we built and systems we set in place are ubiquitous for everyone on the Internet. Back then, storytellers trembled in fear about putting their faces, stories and contact information on the Web and we had a huge job in front of us trying to help folks see the future. I am tired just remembering all that work.
We are in need of a face-lift and few new “cool” features, with our last major revision back in 2002. That may take place later this year. I have plans! We are privately funded, that is, my wife and I pay for the site, so we have to work out a new budget. However, even with our need to update, storytellers in the directory are always telling me that they get many bookings from Storyteller.net. The articles and stories, which we are always adding, get plenty of traffic. We have very high Google search-result rankings. So, we are very much alive and well at Storyteller.net. It is our gift to the community.
Q: If you could identify a person (such as a celebrity) or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?
A: Just quickly, non-profit organizations must make better use of their stories. People give their money to organizations that have stories (results) that resonate with the donor. For all the years that I worked in non-profit groups, I can tell you the money followed the value of the story, not the spreadsheet.
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: I am not so sure that transformation comes from story. I think stories of transformation are powerful, but not sure story alone causes transformation. I have many stories about how the use of “community service” has transformed teens, for example. If in some way the sharing of these stories creates an open door to other opportunities for service, then that is a good use of the story.
In most cases, I think story is there to “frame” the facts, ideals and purposes of groups, actions or information. I know recently a woman, who was in one of my youth programs two decades ago, found me to tell me about her life now. She shared with me how one of my stories in particular led her to her public service. Did the story cause that transformation? I do not know. More likely, it gave and gives her a framework from which she moved forward into community service. Stories carry the message but I am not sure they are the message.
I also have experiences of storytelling in corporate training that caused people to both recommit to their jobs and also caused at least one person to quit. Story, in those cases, was an amplifier of values and decisions already in existence in the listener, the catalyst to have them take transforming actions.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: You must tell stories to get better at stories. You can no more be a storyteller by thinking about stories than an artist can create beautiful water-color paintings by thinking about paint. One must pick up the brush or open one’s mouth as the case may be.
Q: You also coach storytellers, including corporate storytellers, and on your site devoted to that effort, you note that “Corporate storytelling is hard work.” What’s the hardest part about it?
A: The hardest thing is doing the work to master the skills. Corporate folks must take this storytelling skill seriously. To really be an effective corporate storyteller, you need to be devoted to being the best storyteller you can be.
However, many people think of storytelling as an adjunct or soft skill in their repertoire of communication skills. We certainly saw the potentially career-ending and dangerous misuse of storytelling in the televised speech by [Louisiana] Governor Bobby Jindal [after President Obama’s State of the Union address]. I imagined that he probably searched the Internet and found this interesting idea about storytelling and figured that anybody can do it. Well, he found out quickly that storytelling is a powerful tool that requires training in order to be used well at such a high-level. I think that if I had to use a jackhammer for something, that I would want to be taught how to use it rather than relying on my previous experience of watching one be used as a punch line in an episode of “Sesame Street.”
Storytelling is a “hard skill” and must be mastered in business. You cannot “sort of” use storytelling any more than your accountant can “sort of” know about money and taxes. I have been teaching for years that storytelling is an Intentional process by using my “Interpret, Express, Integrate” method. There has to be a balance of theory and technique for corporate storytelling. Unfortunately, we have many of the business storytelling gurus wandering the countryside able to teach theory very well but not so good on technique. There is a danger in corporate America in that we take ourselves too seriously, hoping our statistics, buzzwords, and projected pie charts are a replacement for actual skills. You cannot fake authenticity and still be a good storyteller. In my experience, the most receptive audience these days to learning corporate storytelling are the entrepreneurs and small business owners. These leaders understand that they must master their Story; most often the only thing that separates them from their competition. They know that their image and theory will not help them pay the rent. Our story and knowing how to tell it is about the only thing that really sets us apart from one another. When a company loses touch with its story and how it is presented, we get the disasters we have seen recently in the auto and finance industries.