Friday, April 25, 2014

Platform for Postmoderns: People Are Not Points or Punchlines

Writers do it. Stand-up comedians do it. I suppose I do it. And it annoys me pretty much every time.

"I remember this time someone asked me ..."
The story that gets you to the point. The story that gets you to the punchline. The story that lets people know how awesome you are without coming right out and saying "I'm awesome because ..." That story annoys me pretty much every time.

We are, I think, at an awkward stage in the history of communication. Over the past fifty years we've slowly, clumsily made a transition from locating authority in our clinical expertise (for example, Dr. Spock as parenting guru) to locating authority in our street cred. We long ago tired of reading books by consultants, who present dry research and maybe occasionally buttress the claims of their findings by way of abstract illustration or clearly invented case study. We don't want to hear about how patient X complained of dysfunction Y and demonstrates the value of innovative remedy Z. We are well into the ascendancy of story, far out into the deep waters of self-disclosure. I don't want an author, or a speaker, to declare himself (it was almost always a himself) right; I want an author or a speaker to walk me through how he or she was confronted with the ways that he or she or we have been wrong.

And yet this transition has been sloppy. The clinical expert has tenure; he is hard to unseat. And from that position of power he still sets expectations for how we communicate, how we validate the points we make. So when we tell stories, we often wind up telling them on other people. We reduce them to elevate ourselves.

Chief among the offenders, I think, are the stand-up comics. They've moved past "A guy walks into a bar" jokes; these are too detached for our taste. So instead they tell a story about a time they walked into a bar, where invariably they wound up talking to someone stupid. And invariably in their story they get the better of this stupid barfly.

We, their audience, are meant to be impressed by the comic's keener sense of reality, their quicker wit. And because we are invited into this story, we are made to feel superior to the stupid people out roaming the earth. We, the audience, are better than you, the non-audience. Everybody wins - except that loser in the bar.

But falling in close behind the stand-up comics are people with points to make. Authors, consultants, motivational speakers, preachers - anyone who uses the word platform, really - is at risk for this exploitative kind of storytelling. I fall into this group; I write and speak on a fairly regular basis, but I also work in the publishing industry, which relies on this kind of communicator. We regularly encourage these folks to tell more stories, to demonstrate the embodiment of their ideas so that their readers can better imagine what a world inhabited by their ideas would look like. Many of them wind up telling stories about how they explained their ideas to someone. Blech.

"A guy came up to me after my presentation. He asked me X. I told him Y. Aren't I clever?"
For the record, that's not what we mean. Don't transcribe conversations you have with people about the themes of your book. Don't put quotation marks around your points. This is not why stories exist.

Stories are paintings using words instead of paint. Stories infuse the real world with the energy of myths and epics. Stories are meant to make a moment historic. Stories aren't meant to make a point.

TWEET THIS: Stories are meant to make a moment historic. Stories aren't meant to make a point.

That's not why people exist either, for the record. People aren't props for your messages. People aren't points, any more than they are punchlines. People are people, and they deserve better than to be used.

So tell your stories, but make sure they're real stories, with drama and tension, not just packaging for your proselytizing. And introduce us to people, but as bearers of the image of God, not as marionettes for your message.

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