The Elements of Story

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Portrait of Dave BrickerI never thought I’d learn about business while sailing alone on a small boat at sea, but here’s the story:

When I was a young man still in college, I found myself—quite through happenstance—in the company of an odd band of folks who lived aboard their sailboats in the free anchorage in Miami. The stories they told about harrowing adventures in faraway places captured my interest. Up until that time, I’d been a private prep-school student headed toward some sort of advanced degree and the career that followed, but when I realized that stories of adventure at sea were not just the stuff of books and movies, I resolved to find stories of my own.

Stories inspired me, and the secret floating village of Miami’s Dinner Key anchorage was a storybook Steinbeck himself would have envied. I took notes and photographs and began to develop my “story consciousness.” I didn’t know exactly what stories were, but I made it my business to look for them. My first big realization was that no matter how grandiose the setting or how severe the storm, stories are always about people. Put colorful people in a colorful setting and give them colorful things to do, and you’ve got stories to tell. Take away the people and you’ve got nothing. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear, does it make a sound? No.

Not long after graduation, I found myself on a tiny blue sailboat in the middle of the Gulf Stream en route to the Bahamas. Over the years, I made several Gulf Stream crossings, spent thirty-eight days transiting the North Atlantic, ran aground, battled storms, speared fish on the reefs, anchored in the lee of tranquil islands, climbed an 8000-foot volcano, met wonderful people, experienced deep solitude, got seasick a few times, and returned home.

But having voyaged in search of stories and found them, I still wasn’t sure what a story was. I knew that stories were about people, but I also knew that stories ran deeper than journalistic accounts of who, what, where, when, and why. I worked in a number of disciplines and wrote a number of books before I solved that mystery.

One overarching theme encompasses all of literature and human endeavor—the search for meaning. Meaning is, itself, one of the Essential Absurdities; no one can say what “meaning” means, but if we fumble around in the dark a bit, we can postulate that meaningfulness has to do with the degree to which something resonates with our passions, personality, or purpose. What stories do—as opposed to other kinds of information like processes, ingredients, and data—is communicate meaning from one person to another. Stories are connecting tools.

A story is a metaphorical boat that sails from the rocky, stormy seas of conflict to the safe port of transformation. Whether it’s Cinderella finding “happily ever after” or a business coach challenging her clients to understand their value and charge what they’re worth, the story is about the outcome—the transformation.

Story Elements - Conflict and Transformation

For the story to engage—for the boat to make the passage—the water has to be deep enough; the conflict has to be authentic. Whatever boat you choose must be a metaphor for your listener’s story. We care about Cinderella because we all want to find our prince or princess. We all want to be loved for the subtle, nearly invisible things that make use who we are—our walk—that glass slipper that fits only us. The Cinderella story is authentic, even if it isn’t true or plausible.

Story Elements - Authenticity

To make the crossing, the sailboat needs wind—an invisible, powerful force—magic. Cinderella had her fairy godmother, but perhaps you’re a business speaker who can transform the culture of an organization in forty-five minutes. Do you teach autistic children to speak or shoot photographs that transport viewers to other worlds? Do you invent drugs that save lives or play music that makes people dance? Are you great at math or chemistry? Do you make wine or cook transcendent meals or show people how to climb mountains…? You get the idea. Magic is quite real; it’s no more confined to the realm of books and movies than adventure is.

Story Elements - Magic

I call this model StorySailing.™ A story is a ship full of people that’s pushed from conflict to transformation through the deep waters of authenticity by the winds of magic.

How do you apply StorySailing™ to business? In the business world, you have to learn to navigate and trust your compass. You deal with storms and calms and mechanical breakdowns, and you’ll run aground sooner or later. As a captain of industry, you learn about leadership. It’s up to you to keep things shipshape. Everything that happens on your ship is your responsibility, even if you’re not the one who messed it up.

Keep reading and watching this site. You’ll learn how stories work, how to craft and tell tales that connect and engage, and how to use StorySailing™ to solve problems. We’ll explore how stories attract and retain talent, build strong teams and effective leaders, and communicate with clients and colleagues. I welcome you to Storysailing.com.

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Dave Bricker: StorySailing®