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Talking stories: a Q&A with storyteller Scott Whitehair

This weekend finds Scott Whitehair on stage at the renowned National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The festival, by invitation, marks a new milestone in Whitehair’s career as a storyteller, allowing him to stand in the hallowed shadows of the great storytellers who have come before, and whom he so greatly admires.

By now, 10 years into a career that he seems born for but arrived at a bit accidentally, Whitehair has enabled thousands of Chicagoans to tell their own stories through the city’s longest-running storytelling series, a storytelling show open to anyone to perform in, and a citywide network of open mic nights that have taken on a life of their own. He also works as a teacher and corporate coach, helping us all to tell better stories to the end of making real connections.

More than being on stage, Whitehair came to an important realization through teaching. “Storytelling isn’t just something we do on these little stages in bars and taverns and theaters. Storytelling is in everything that we do and it's the most effective way to communicate,” he said. So, on that note, I leaned in to listen and learn from the man who will also grace the stage at Relate Live 2017 later this month.

Many people tell stories, but few claim “storyteller” as their job title. When did you know that you were a storyteller, or would become one?

It depends on who you ask! A friend of mine recently said, "It's so nice to see people asking you to do the thing everybody asked you to stop doing when you were 12." So I guess nothing's really changed, but officially I got into storytelling just over 10 years ago. I took a workshop at a local theater called "Solo Performance." I had no idea what that was. I had pictured someone doing interpretive dance with glow sticks and I almost didn't take it—which would have probably drastically changed my life.

But I took the workshop and it focused on storytelling and, after a weekend of working on our stories, we got up in front of a packed house and told them. I was hooked, and so were a few other people, and we started doing shows. We had no idea what we were doing, and the shows were never in the same place twice, and they were always in front of about five people—like friends, family, and people who owed us money.

And then what happened?

It went that way for the first year, but gradually people started to show up. I remember the first time a guy showed up that no one recognized. We were like, "Who was that guy? Do you know that guy?"

That show has run for about nine years now and is called “This Much is True.” We do it every month. At the time, people started to say, “I want to do this. I want to tell a story.” It was hard because we only had so many spots, so I started “Story Lab Chicago,” which was basically open to anybody who wanted to tell a story. At this point we've had over 500 people from all walks of life, most with very little stage experience, get up and tell their stories. It's been amazing. In almost seven years, not a single show has been bad. I believe if you give people the room to be great, they fill it, and they have every month.

You’ve created opportunities for both veteran and newbie storytellers to tell their tales. What’s the goal with your latest show, “Do Not Submit”?

A lot of shows in Chicago are curated or booked way in advance. We wanted to create a place where anybody could show up that night and tell a story. Also, as storytellers, we realized that we didn't have a place to go and bomb the way comedians do. That's purposeful because comedians are finding out what works by sorting through it.

As time has gone on, as much as I love telling my stories, I get more of a thrill in having a small role in helping other people discover they can tell their stories, and that their stories are valuable, and that they have a voice and should use it.

I get more of a thrill in having a small role in helping other people discover they can tell their stories, and that their stories are valuable, and that they have a voice and should use it.

That’s really beautiful. I love the idea of there not only being room for failure, but actively seeking it. There’s a lot of emphasis on mastering the art of storytelling, and it’s easy to forget that you probably have to tell some bad stories along the way.

Yes! If you are unwilling to ever tell a story that doesn't work, the odds of you telling stories that work get much, much slimmer. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on coaching sessions for some of the best storytellers in the world and you hear their first versions—sometimes with too much detail, or not enough, or it rambles—and understand that it’s a craft for anyone. You have unlimited potential if you put in the time to develop your voice.

I’m inspired daily from others. I’ve seen people get on the stage for the first time and I’ve learned from them. Or I’ve heard people in conversation at a bar and thought, “You know, there was something there.” Stories are all around you,

From a craft perspective, what is "the thing" you’re listening for?

I think we all want this—to go on a journey. I want you to take me out of the room. I want you to be vulnerable and share even a peek of who you are so that I can connect with you as that person. No matter how different our lives are, we’re all human. If you’re telling a story for an audience, they need to be able to connect with the story and with you.

Thinking about the series of open mic nights around Chicago, what is the relationship between story and community?

We’ve only taken baby steps with “Do Not Submit.” We do have 10 open mics around the city, but Chicago is a large, diverse city and people are separated by a lot of things. Between the north and south sides of the city, there are people who don’t interact with one another. We’ve started with the resources we have by going into different neighborhoods and letting people in those neighborhoods take ownership of it. All the open mics share a similar philosophy, but are very different depending on where you go.

I'm hoping that we can do our part to just create opportunity, to make it easy. Sometimes the effects of telling your personal story aren’t always big and dramatic, and you don’t always get to see them, but the hope is that someone can connect.

Do you find that people gravitate towards telling certain types of stories most often? Sad stories? Stories with happy endings?

People share all sorts of stories, but I have noticed—and I love this—that vulnerability invites vulnerability. When I’ve told a story on stage that’s vulnerable and that shares a mistake I’ve made or a difficult time I got through, often a complete stranger will approach me afterward and thank me for sharing that and then share something vulnerable about themselves. Or they’ll tell me about a tough decision they had to make, and tell me a story that maybe they don’t tell to many people.

There’s something about that. Being vulnerable allows other people to feel the feelings that are tied to their experiences or memories, and sometimes even to voice them. If we’re willing to share something about what’s important to us, it allows other people to as well. That’s useful in creating empathy, in life and in business. If you want to get to know the people you’re doing business with, you need to let them in and be willing to let them see what you’re about.

Being vulnerable allows other people to feel the feelings that are tied to their experiences or memories, and sometimes even to voice them.

That’s a perfect segway. Why is storytelling so effective within a business context?

There's no better way to show your company values to someone than to tell a story. When we present somebody with something like, "Hey, this is what I'm about," there's a skeptical part of the brain that goes, "Really? How do I know?” You put someone in the position of needing to make a judgment call. If instead, you put that same information into a story, the listener responds by saying, You totally bypass the skeptical part of the brain, which is so valuable.

In workshops, or as you coach corporate teams, how often do people say: “I don’t know if I have a story”?

People say that all the time. When people feel like they don’t have any stories, what they mean is: “I’ve already judged my stories to not be interesting or have value” or “No one wants to hear my stories.” And it’s simply not true. As human beings, we’re fascinated by stories. If we’re given information and there's not a narrative to it, we create one.

As human beings, we’re fascinated by stories. If we’re given information and there's not a narrative to it, we create one.

No one will ever judge your stories as harshly as you do. You have to tell that internal voice to be quiet. Because if you don't tell your stories, you’re not only cheating yourself out of an opportunity to express who you are and what's important to you, but also cheating anybody who might hear it from having the opportunity to connect, or to learn something from you, or to share in that experience. Any story that you need to tell,

Let’s talk more about listening. If, as a brand, we focus on telling stories to our customers, how can we also be sure that we’re creating the space to listen to our customers tell their stories?

Listening is so important, and I started to get interested in listening for a couple reasons. When you give a presentation, for example, you prepare. You might practice in the mirror, or with your team, or review notes. But how often do we put that much time into working on our listening skills? We don’t, really. And, obviously, listening is different than hearing. Active listening is just as much a craft as storytelling, and it’s something we don’t spend time on.

When you’re telling a story, you have to listen to your audience because it affects how your story is going to progress. We all come in with a plan, or a goal that we want to execute on. But if you’re listening to your audience, or your customers, you have to be able to drop your preconceived notions about what’s going to happen and be willing to change. Often, we’ll listen, but only to the parts that we want to hear, the parts that support what we already believe or think is the right way forward. That kind of selective listening can kill you.

Just how often do you think we aren’t listening? How much does the average person miss out on?

So much. If you get on a train in Chicago, probably 85 percent of the people have earbuds in. So, you’re cutting yourself off from your environment. How many times do you walk by a restaurant and see four people at a table having dinner, all with their phones out? That’s four people having dinner alone.

We often fake it and we get by with that. In a meeting, you think, “Okay, I'll just listen for the main points” and then you think about lunch or the other projects you’re working on. It’s hard to be fully present, and there’s endless opportunity to work at and get better at listening. If you actively listen for an hour, you should be as exhausted as if you just spoke for an hour. That’s when you know you're doing it right.

People working in customer service roles often have to listen to customers all day long and quickly determine whether the customer is having the problem they’ve described, or another issue altogether. Do you have any advice for people who might be suspended in this active listening space?

I'd say that you should listen to everything the customer says before you start to come up with a solution. You might hear the first couple sentences and then think, "I know what this is about. This has happened before. I can fix this really quickly."

While you're doing that, you're missing information that gives you the big picture. That extra 30 seconds or minute of fully listening may completely change what you need to do. Ultimately, it helps you avoid false starts. You can’t come up with a solution for half someone’s problem. If you make an assumption, you may find out you were wrong and didn’t offer the best solution. In the long run, listening saves time.

What are three things we can all start doing at work that will make us more effective communicators?

Here's a simple one. There was a study out of Virginia Tech, that revealed that even when a phone is visible on the table, even if you're not using it, disrupts communication. So, put your stuff away. Don't just turn it off, don't have it within arm's reach. Put your technology away. Fully prepare to listen.

Second, realize that no matter how good at multitasking you think you are, our brains don't work that way. What we do is switch back and forth, so if you want to do one thing well—and in this case, it's listening—then make listening the one thing you’re doing at that time.

Also, don't interrupt. When possible, hear someone out. We finish a sentence for somebody because we want to move it along more quickly. But even if you get it right, what harm is there in letting someone say it? And what about when you’re wrong? Let people finish.

I can’t resist. Can you tell me a quick story—either the first story you ever told on stage, or the most memorable story you’ve heard lately?

Oh yeah. I can tell you both. The first story I told in a workshop was about my parents taking me as a kid to Myrtle Beach. I really, badly wanted to go to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and thought, “This is going to be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” My parents, rightfully, were like, “It’s a scam,” but they ended up letting me go in. And of course, it wasn’t what I imagined it would be. I had pictured, you know, the guy with the world’s longest nails walking around and shaking hands. I pictured endless shrunken heads. Instead, it was more like pictures and text, but—leaving there, I didn’t believe any less in any of that stuff. Because it wasn’t proof that I needed—I realized I was already a believer.

The second story didn’t even happen on stage. I was just walking around a few months back, killing time between jobs, and went into a spice shop. I didn’t plan on buying anything, but I saw a porcini mushroom salt on the counter and asked the guy, "Well, what do you do with this?"

He opens it, and he puts it under my nose, and he says, "Smell that. That's the smell of the sea."

I'm like, "Okay, you have my attention," and he tells me this story about how this company had been harvesting algae and to get the cleanest algae, they needed to clean up this part of the ocean where these salt beds had been that were thousands of years old. After cleaning up the ocean for the algae, they realized that the most valuable part was not the algae, but these salt beds that had been around forever. He looks at me and says, "That is the salt that is in this bottle."

I bought the biggest bottle I could. If he had said, "It's good on pork chops," I would have set it back on the counter.

I bought the biggest bottle I could. If he had said, "It's good on pork chops," I would have set it back on the counter.

That’s such a good reminder that a story doesn’t have to be epic. It just has to arrive at some kind of truth. What’s next on the horizon for you?

I'm never complacent. I want to find more ways to get people telling their stories. I want to do my part to create more opportunity and to create more space to fill. What we’re doing now in Chicago is a good start, but I never see the work we’ve begun as something finished.

Suzanne Barnecut loves reading and writing stories of all kinds and duration. She is a frequent contributor to Relate, and creates brand content and tells customer stories for Zendesk. In her spare time, she can be found writing fiction, reading The New Yorker, and consuming (too many) pastries from San Francisco’s bakeries. Find her on Twitter at: @elisesuz.