Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tell me a story

When I wrote about storytelling in my book Lovemarks: the Future Beyond Brands, I told how Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand surround their great treasures with interesting talk. Maori believe that by doing this they invest the objects with greater Mana (standing and status). I believe they are right and that stories and interesting talk are the best way to connect our past, present, and future. In times of stress and uncertainty, we need these connections more than ever.

Recently in New York I was talking to Aunt Pauline, a 90-year-old European lady who makes the world’s best goulash - she has no idea of the recipe, she just knows how to make it. Someone needs to watch her prepare this wonderful dish and film it, or her secret will disappear. It is just so easy to do now. I believe we should stop thinking of these new cameras and recording devices as being just for kids and put them to work capturing the stories of our elders. It’s a record that needs to be visual, not just words on a page. It is the only way we can ensure that Aunt Pauline’s great goulash survives. And believe me, having tried it, you don’t need another reason.

When I was in New Zealand recently, I met with a number of Maori who were using sisomo to enhance their understanding of traditions. Using small digital cameras, they were building a storehouse of their elders talking, telling stories, and demonstrating the skills they had learned from their own parents and grandparents. How to cook special local foods, tales of ancestors, vivid stories of childhood and growing up in times so different from today. I was struck by the central role storytelling has always played in Maori culture and how wonderfully new technology can bring it to life. In part, the love of Maori for stories is based in the realities of oral tradition – the practice of writing only came to them on the high-masted ships of Captain Cook and his men – but there is more to it than that. When people Love and Respect storytelling as performance, the compelling nature of metaphor and the mesmerizing effect of a tale well told, they place a greater weight on the skills of communication. There is a real virtuous cycle created with great storytellers influencing their children and grandchildren to tell great stories in turn. These skills can erode, however, when people choose to tune into mass media instead and lose the sound of their grandparents’ voices.

I cannot overstate the importance I place on storytelling. In my own family we use video to lay down a memory of things past for our children that will, in time, inspire both wonder and delight. This is not about nostalgia. It is about tracing a living history and passing on the knowledge of elders to future generations. Now that small video cameras are so readily available, it is a task to which we should all lend a hand and our hearts.