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#83 An Essential Skill You Need to Hone as a Storyteller
Storytelling Lesson From Atlas of the Heart
One of the core foundations I teach when talking about storytelling is the idea of knowing yourself as essential to being a great storyteller. Or knowing the teller. But there is something quite powerful in being grounded in who you are, where you’ve been, what the world looks like around you, and, most importantly, how you feel in it. It’s why I’ve written so much about context in this newsletter. Understanding your context—having clarity around it, will change your stories for the better. Though the way you gather that context is different for the different types of stories you tell, the first step in my process (and the one I often share) is about gathering the right inputs to gain clarity about your personal, business, or career context.
I finished Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart late last year and it reinforced for me the importance and power of understanding our context, specifically in the realm of our emotions. In it she writes about the importance of putting words to things in order to create meaning around them. She quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” which struck me hard when I read it. She builds on that explaining, “Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Having access to the right words can open up entire universes.”
I’m going to write that again: “Having access to the right words can open up entire universes.”
Storytelling, communication, everything that we do in our lives comes down to meaning making and creating connection. For me, it’s why I’m here. What Brown shows us in the book is that some of the most important understanding we can have is around our emotions. Yet we rarely spend enough time with them or dissect them enough to get value out of the knowledge that comes from them. In her research, Brown found that people can primarily only name and describe three common emotions they experience. Can you guess them…?
Happy, sad, angry.
Yet the human experience has far more nuance than happy sad angry. Think of all you’ve felt in the last two years alone. The complexity of it and what it meant for how you shared yourself, your stories, and your experiences. Brown’s book was basically developed to help us better understand the depth of emotions and be able to name them. The full title is Atlas of the Heat: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. We can’t share our stories effectively or with any impact, which means we can’t connect with each other unless we’re able to describe the emotions that came along with the experiences.
This insight hit me so hard that in the middle of developing my storytelling foundations program, I updated the course work to include an exercise I developed to help tap folks into emotional granularity—our ability to accurately recognize and label emotions—before diving into creating their stories.
So what’s the lesson? I guess, pay attention. Spend time with your emotions (the good and the bad and all that lies in between) and develop a sense of emotional granularity especially when it comes to the stories you want to share and the emotions you want to evoke when you share them. It’s much more than happy, sad, or angry I bet. Brown has a list of core emotions that are a great place to start. I’ve recommended Atlas of the Heart before and am officially recommending it again. It is a textbook on emotions, a map of sorts to understanding ourselves and each other. I encourage you to explore it and see what you discover about yourself in the process. Let me know what you think in the comments if/when you do.
A Story Well Told
I am obsessed. Obsessed. With Korean zombie movies, it started with Train to Busan and has evolved. Horror as a genre does not do it for me. I just can’t with the supernatural. Drama though? Sign me up. And that’s what makes “All of Us Are Dead,” a Netflix produced Korean zombie show set in a high school special. Yes it is gory, as someone who isn’t often bothered by gore, it is next level (I turned my head away a few times), but it is also full of heart and the human condition. I sobbed during the final episode. All that to say, if you’re looking for something different and a story that will captivate and make you fall in love with a group of teenagers, think about what we value in society, but also make you jump out of your skin a fair bit, I highly highly recommend you check it out. It is fantastic storytelling with true deep characters and themes that translate across cultures. I have all my fingers and toes crossed for a second season, a comic book spinoff, and anything else they’ll give me.
Also, if you’re going to be at SXSW next week be sure to join my talk on Monday March 14 (you have to RSVP in advance ). I’ll be running a workshop style presentation on what makes us all storytellers and how to craft your unique story. Would love to see you there!