Transformation isn’t about words. Most of us who work in transformation research, write about or teach concepts that can only be fully understood as a direct experience. It’s about an experience that words can only point to. Yet words are what we have. For most of us, they’re the primary way we communicate and understand. Used wisely, language can be extremely powerful tool for personal and social transformation.
Transformative storytelling uses language in the service of the unknowable and inarticulable. It weaves together magic and logic to create an experience for the reader that lives between the words and goes beyond them; it awakens the heart and engages the mind. When transformative storytelling and a transformative teaching come together, the result is exponentially more powerful.
To create this experience, we can use a combination of storytelling techniques from fiction and screenwriting to captivate audiences, while adhering to the requirements of nonfiction (that is, truth and authenticity). Didactic writing has a limited impact—it is absorbed solely through the intellect. A reader can agree or disagree with your thoughts and ideas, and even with your research findings. A reader can dismiss your experience (that’s where a lot of the cultural idea of “woo woo” comes from, people dismissing others’ experiences). But if you create an experience for the reader…well, people always believe their own experience.
The Power of Storytelling
“People don’t believe what you tell them.
They rarely believe what you show them.
They often believe what their friends tell them.
They always believe what they tell themselves.”
Transformative storytelling is as much about the syntax, the language, the word choice, structure and energy underneath the words as it is about the subject. It also has to do with the state in which writing happens. In transformative writing, all the elements work together to evoke an experience in the reader.
Create this experience, and you’ll have an ally who embodies the story as her own. Because it’s now a part of her, she shares it with others, and this ripples out in ever-wider circles of transformation.
This is not new. This is what poets have done for millennia, and storytellers who carved in stone before that. It’s what skilled fiction writers do, and screenwriters (even more so because they can create a multisensory immersive environment). In the grand scheme of writing, literary nonfiction—nonfiction that uses literary techniques—is relatively new, but it’s powerful. Consider how Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet gave introverts permission to thrive openly and launched conversations about how to create more introvert-friendly environments in towns and in businesses. Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes shifted the frame of discussion about autism, while simultaneously giving people on the spectrum the first non-judgmental look at their own history.
Transformative storytelling doesn’t have to be spiritual, or personal development. Neither of the above books fall into those categories. A book on the implications of the zero-point field can be transformative, as can writing about human networks in business. Transformation is equally about the subject (what you’re writing about) and the writing (how you write it). The common denominator is that transformative storytelling creates a lasting shift in the reader’s perception.
Here’s what transformative storytelling is not: self-help. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. Self-help implies that the process begins and ends with the self. Transformation does begin with internal work, but it doesn’t end there. Without that internal work, we become wounded healers and subconsciously transmit those wounds, along with wisdom, to readers.
Five Qualities of Transformative Storytelling
I’ve identified five essential qualities of writing that contributes to transformation:
- Depth. Transformative pieces of writing help the reader solve a challenge by getting at the root cause of a problem, not just the superficial manifestation. When Food is Love, by Geneen Roth, is a transformative book, by my definition. A book about losing 30 pounds in 30 days is not. Transformational work always deals with the subconscious, as well as the conscious mind.
- Context. At the heart of transformative storytelling is the illumination of ideas with context—historical, spiritual and cultural. Transformative articles, blogs and books don’t “dumb down” complex ideas, but rather illuminate them, and their contexts, in language that will resonate with the target reader. Transformation can’t be captured in platitudes (koans, yes, but not platitudes)
- Authenticity. Transformative pieces of writing empathize with readers’ pain; they don’t manipulate it for sales or ego. It treats the reader compassionately, equal to equal, with the understanding that we are all teachers with one hand and students with the other. Writing may be based on primary or secondary research, or combinations of interviews and personal experience, or direct knowledge—but it’s rooted in something authentic, not a nebulous idea. Additionally, the microexpressions (tone, pacing, syntax, etc.) are coherent with the subject matter.
- Practicality. Transformative books don’t usually make wild promises that are too good to be true. A book that promises ecstatic happiness all the time, or three steps to manifesting a lottery win, is unrealistic (and these miss the point of transformation). Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness, which focuses on mindfulness, acceptance and compassion, is transformational.
- Broader purpose. A transformative book has a triple bottom line of purpose (helping people), profit (helping the author and those around him) and planet (both human and natural, the greater purpose). Transformation recognizes that we go inward in order to have the strength and perspective to go outward and work for social justice, global change, etc. But of course, there’s the oxygen mask principle: We can’t help others until we’ve worked through our own stuff.