Tag Archives: story

Toxic Tales – The Lemming Lie

lemming-763780_1920This is the third article in a series on Toxic Tales.  Now it’s gonna get messy.

Have you ever heard the phrase – “Don’t be a lemming” or “If you friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”  Up until a few months ago, I thought lemmings were mammals that willingly followed the group and would jump off a cliff just to follow the crowd.  I grew up “knowing” that fact.  A few months ago I was reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine about white owls and stumbled onto a section about lemmings, their major food source.  The journalist threw in a line about a nature documentary that staged the mass lemming death to create a dramatic ending. Huh? What?

I rolled up my sleeves and investigated the mystery of The Lemming Lie.

Here’s what I found. Back in 1957 Disney produced a nature documentary called White Wilderness about the arctic. The producer needed a dramatic ending so he herded a group of lemmings and drove them off a cliff.  Families gathered every Sunday to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, so when the documentary was aired millions saw a group of gerbil like rodents tumbling off a series of rocky cliffs, many falling to their deaths, others being swept away into the ocean.  White Wilderness won the 1958 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Animal Planets lists Lemmings Suicide as the #1 animal myth.

The Lemming Lie really bugged me and I wasn’t sure why.  After all I’m a storyteller, I tell and write lots of fiction.  As a story coach I help lots of folks find and tell their stories. Here’s one of my favorite lines, “know the difference between truth and facts.”  I tell folks to not get hung up on listing every event or even focusing on the right order of things.  But this is different.

Blatantly creating a false fact (and not disclosing its falseness) is toxic.  Today there is an abundant use of story in TED style talks, as a teaching tool, and as a motivational device.  Factual stories are now told everywhere. I heard a local politician tell an emotional story that swayed the audience, but I spotted the fabricated fact.  Some might argue, it’s only a story, and even if it is presented as a true story, we shouldn’t be gullible, but I disagree.

Since stories are sticky causing us to remember them longer than other forms of communication, the false facts embedded in these stories are also remembered.  There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction.  Listeners also recognize simplifications or generalizations in stories, however if the teller, writer, or film documentor is presenting something as fact, which he or she knows is a lie, the story will chisel doubt, skepticism, or false ideas into the audience.

Have you discovered a Lemming Lie…something you accepted as truth in a story, book, or movie, which is false?  I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a link to the clip about lemmings from White Wilderness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOOs8MaR1YM

Do you want to work with Rivka. Check out her Story Coaching page?  http://www.simplyextraordinarytales.com/story-coaching/

 

(note-I read a lot about the lemming myth and found one video that sited a cartoon published a couple years before the documentary was released. Since documentaries take time to create, I’m not sure which came first, but using a cartoon character as source material to justify staging a “true” event, seems like a stretch to me. This illustrates the problem.  Once a lie is embedded into our social consciousness, it’s hard to let it go.)


 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Weekly Blog

lost-1605501_1920I started a new series for this blog just a little over a year ago.  I had finished the series on “Junk Stories” and was ready to begin a new series on Toxic Tales: Stories That Cause Harm.  I wrote an outline, began research, and started the first article.

…And then…I stopped.

I stopped working on the series and the blog.  I continued creating spoken word stories and other written content, but the blog drifted into silence.  At first I thought about the content but procrastinated.  Eventually I pushed it out of my mind.

Today is the December 17th, 2018, two weeks before the year is over.  I opened my blog this morning and looked at the picture.  Whatever blocked me from writing a year ago is still here.  I looked at the picture and went about my work until midday when I finally read the last article.  I agree with everything I wrote, so why am I still pushing against writing this series?

Here’s what I’ve come up.

Art is fun.  All art forms are fun to create, experience, and enjoy, and it’s easy to just leave it there.  Stories fill up a lot of our time.  We listen, tell, write, watch, and read stories.  There’s a part of me that just wants to enjoy the story and not think too hard. If I admit (especially on a public blog) that stories can be harmful, I need to take responsibility when I encounter toxic tales. Part of me just wants to have fun, but another (wiser) part of me knows better.

So I’m stepping forward.  Over the next few weeks I’ll explore how stories can be harmful or dangerous. I hope you’ll join me in this (sometimes scary) exploration.

The Risks of Living on a Junk Story Diet

By Rivka Willick

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We process and store the stories we hear and read just as surely as we ingest and process the food we eat. Stories, just like food, offer a wide range of benefits and risks. The best tales will challenge the mind, generate courage and hope to the heart, and inspire the spirit. Toxic stories, and yes there are many that act like poison, can generate fear, mistrust, hatred, hopelessness, cruelty, and confusion. During this month’s exploration, we will look at the stories that are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.  I call them Junk Stories.  Enjoying Junk Stories in moderation is OK, but if you fill up on Junk your mind, heart, and spirit will suffer.

Let’s take a closer look at the negative effects of consuming too many junk stories.

Dumbing Down – Stories can fill us up mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  When the content is challenging, curious, or inspiring we grow and flourish. However, if the content is pleasant or titillating but lacks substance, we can spend our mental and emotional energy with little in return. That’s OK in moderation, just as a handful of potato chips are also OK.  Problems arise when we take more than just a handful. Remember the old Lays Potato Chip slogan, “bet you can’t eat just one!” Focusing on just one type of story or binging for hours or days on a series are serious signs of a JUNK STORY DIET. Remember, there are structures used purposefully to ‘hook you’ and keep you coming back. The story in and of itself is OK, dependency isn’t.

Lack of Empathy & Narcissism – Stories are bridges and often become connectors between people, cultures, and different ways of life, but they can also act like a funhouse mirror reflecting how we see ourselves, often in a distorted way.  We’ve all met the guy at a party who monopolizes the conversation with self-aggrandizing tales; people will walk away or try to change the topic but he just doesn’t stop. Personal stories are now one of the hottest trends, but when these tales are solely focused on just the teller, often jumping from one gory or shocking event to another, narcissism has fertile soil to grow.  A diet of shocking stories can also reduce your ability to empathize.

Isolation – Some stories expand the world and others insulate the reader creating a bubble for the reader or listener to escape into. Vacations are good, imprisonment is bad.  If you feel entrapped by media, addictive novels, or your own stories, you need to turn those off and find stories that connect you to others.

Dependency – An exciting movie, novel, or performance can produce an adrenal rush. That heightened emotional state is thrilling and fun, but it can also become addictive. I remember a commercial featuring a zombie-like woman who begins to panic at the end of the last episode of a TV series. The spokesperson assured her she’d be OK if she subscribed to their service, they had lots of binge-worthy shows. The ad ends with her smiling as she sits back to zone out once again. Your natural curiosity and emotional growth can get stuck and that can lead to frustration and depression.

Spiritual Disconnection – Every religion and spiritual practice uses stories as a conduit to understand complicated and challenging ideas. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who did ground breaking work understanding the stories in folklore and comparative religion showed just how powerful the narrative format can be.  The opposite is also true.  Just as stories can connect us to higher truths and lead us to deeper meanings in life, other stories can desensitize us.  Junk stories can stifle our desire to stretch and push ourselves.  The easy story often fills us up making us reluctant to tackle challenging stuff.

Miscommunication & Lies – This category is closer to Toxic than Junk, but I decided to include it because dishonest stories often mascaraed as important or essential stuff even though it’s just junk.  Propaganda campaigns seek out stories which evokes emotional responses and appear to be true.  Once you ingest one of these “true” but dishonest tales it can get stuck in your mind as truth.  This form of junk is often delivered at political and sales events.  They also flourish all over the internet.

Do you have other ideas about the risks of junk stories? Leave a comment below.  If you’d like to explore the power of story, drop me a note.  I do one-on-one coaching, workshops, and performances.

Next Blog: How to Identify Junk Stories.

Infusing Story onto Products

STORY is the big new word in marketing & advertising. Stories are sticky-memorable-and people want to hear them. Stories are very old but it sounds like modern marketing gurus have just discovered the concept. Tell the story of your product and you’ll be a multi-millionaire overnight. It sounds simple, and it is…but first you have to understand how stories work and honor their structure. That’s sometimes tricky.
Let’s look at two companies that tried to infuse story into their message, one was more successful than the other.
cocacola

Example #1 – Coke-a-Cola and Santa Clause
Just about everyone in the Western Hemisphere has seen the picture of Jolly Old St. Nick with his snowy white beard and bright red suit holding a bottle of Coke. The image of the soda pop drinking Santa first appeared in 1931, long after Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823. Images of the red clad gift giver were seen on magazines and books before 1931, but using Santa as product placement was new. Instead of eating a cookie set out by children, he took a moment to refresh. It all fit into the narrative and the branding sizzled. The soda pop just expanded the image of Chris Kringle and created a fresh chapter to a delightful story. Great illustrations and a sense of humor made this branding story a best seller for decades.

My beautiful picture

Example #2 – INOX Watch and the NYFD

August 2014 Vitorinox, a major fashion brand that originally created the Swiss Army Knife, rolled out a new watch. They joined forces with the New York Fire Department and created a flashy event at SIR Stage 37 on West 37th St in Manhattan. They’re hoping to create a branding story using images of the most famous fire fighters in the world to show off the durability of their watch. We heard bag piping firemen and saw dramatic demonstrations of the watch’s durability. The INOX watch kept ticking after a fire engine rolled over it and a washing machine washed it. The durable watch was boiled in a tea pot and froze in a mountain of ice. Lots of wow, but where’s the story?

Stories work because they create connections and give us a sense completion, that’s why they’re memorable. I walked around the party and asked how the FDNY and INOX are connected but got no real answer. “They thought it was a good idea.” “The FDNY wanted to try something new.” Yep that’s what I was told, but that doesn’t make a story. I asked if the firemen were going to be given these durable watches and the Vitorinox spokeswoman said maybe. Images alone are not enough. Don’t get me wrong. I love the image of the watch in the teapot, but it’s just an image. The marketers might be hoping that the watch buying public will create their own story from the images. Sometimes that works but it feels like they just missed creating a branding story that will last for generations.

Santa will always enjoy a Coke during his midnight ride because a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end was set up before the first 1931 image and is remembered every time we see it. The jury is still out about the firefighter’s timepiece.

Finding the Story

An Incident is not a story.  Something happens and you talk about it, that’s an anecdote.  If you simply restate it, it might be a plot or a news report, but it’s not a story.  It’s a bit like saying a skeleton is a person when in reality there is no life in the skeleton without muscle, flesh, and blood.

An incident or event is a launch pad for a story; it’s actually a launch pad for many stories, and your intentions, feelings, and characters will determine just which story will emerge.  Individuals infuse meaning, events do not determine story.

Let me give you an example:

A 20 year old goes to a party, decides not to drink, drives home, then he gets into an accident and calls his dad.  That’s the event, but it can inspire many stories.  Here are a few.

Story #1 – A 20 year old goes to a party and decides not to drink.  There’s a lot of peer pressure and he’s called a slew of names but laughs them off. He’s offered a couple mixed drinks, but refuses them.  He’s tempted and almost gives in, but doesn’t.  He leaves the party a little early and heads home.  When he’s half way home he hits a patch of black ice, loses control of the car, and hits a tree.  He calls his dad and gets the car towed to their mechanic.  Now he keeps a picture of the dented front end of the car in his wallet.  It reminds him that sometimes doing the right thing has its own rewards.

Story #2 – A 20 year old goes to a party and decides not to drink.  He was hoping to meet up with some friends but they never show.  The party just seems to drag on and on so he leaves a little early.  The weather is nasty and he just wants to get home and crawl into bed. When  he’s about half way home he spots a patch of black ice up a head.  His first thought is to swerve around it, but instead he hits the breaks, and regrets his action the second his foot depresses the pedal as the car begins to spin totally out of control.  Suddenly things seem to slow down and move in slow motion.  He wants to do something, but all he can do is watch the scenery through his window until the front end of his car collides with an oak tree.  He sits still for a minute, until he realizes he’s holding his breath.  He takes a deep inhalation and begins to shake. It takes him a few minutes before he reaches into his pocket and takes out his cell. Then it takes him a few more minutes before he calls his dad. He sat staring straight ahead; it was as if time just stopped until he heard a wrapping on the window.  He turned towards the noise and heard his dad’s voice which seemed to reset the clock.  Time began again.

 Story #3 – A 20 year old goes to a party and decides not to drink. The weather is nasty so he decides to head home early.  When he’s half way home he hits a patch of black ice and spins out of control and collides with a tree.  He sits in the car for a few minutes before he pulls out his cell to call his dad. His dad had always been there for him as a kid, but things changed when he started high school.  He didn’t have much time for his dad and his dad didn’t seem to have much time for him.  College took even more time, but as he sat staring at the trunk of an old oak tree, he couldn’t think of calling anybody but his dad.  His voice quivered a little when he said hello and his dad knew something happened right away, but he waited and just listened.  He closes his cell phone and suddenly his dad appears.  He helps his son get out of the car and they go through some logistics. It isn’t until their home that he realizes that his dad never asked about the party.  He just trusted him.

 

That’s three very different stories.  One is about courage, the second is about trauma, and third is character driven about relationships.  All three stories came from the same event are unique. Infusing story into an event can heal, brand, or inspire. Work with a story coach to plant and harvest your stories.