We Irish are great at storytelling, because it helped us to survive

We Irish are great at storytelling, because it helped us to survive
Broadcaster Graham Norton at the West Cork Literary Festival last week with festival director Eimear O’Herlihy. Our talent for storytelling, renowned around the world, was born out of our centuries-old oral culture and thrives to this day.

It was a conversations that could happen only in Ireland. It started with a group of American tourists, three women, one man, standing in the corridor of a hotel in Dublin, looking out, longingly, at a rain-soaked garden.

The rain had lifted, one of them happily noted. The sun had come out, another agreed. It looked so pleasant out there.

One of the four accosted a passing staff member and asked how they could get to sit out in the garden, on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The staffer stopped, looked out at the sodden garden, and gave them a wonderful, reassuring smile.

“Ah, you wouldn’t want to,” he assured them, and buzzed off with himself.

I pushed the hidden button to get out to no-woman’s land and used kitchen paper to dry off one of the chairs and then the table. When you are a natural slob, your briefcase always holds a chunk of kitchen roll, ready to cope with self-inflicted disasters.

Emboldened by my actions, the four Americans also came out into the garden, although they had to stand for a while — not having come equipped with kitchen paper — before another staff member surfaced and offered to dry everything off for them. Very professionally she did it, too, scooping pooled water off the table using a window squeegee.

As soon as they sat down, it was clear why they so desperately needed access to the garden. Two of the women were smokers.

One of them, having hauled nicotine into herself with a fervour that suggested it was saving her life rather than killing her, said to the others that she wasn’t thrilled about going back to Texas the following day, but she was good and tired of the Irish assuming they knew better than you what was good for you.

My ears pricked up at the chance to hear the kind of moan about this country that sets you up for the day.

Two of the others did a milddemurral. The third, a woman 30 years younger than the others, suggested that her aunt’s view might be prejudiced by their experience with cab drivers here.

This led to a brisk exchange about taxi drivers. Their main complaint about these guys was that the drivers were not enthusiastic about undertaking short journeys.

One such driver had recently pointed out to the Texans that the place to which they wanted him to take them was only half-a-mile a way. They could walk it. He would take them, of course, he added; he was just pointing it out.

The younger woman reminded the others that she had established for him that regulations demanded he drive them there and that they would pay the fare.

The implication was the apparently unasked question: “So what the hell is wrong with you, trying to turn away business? This is your job, remember?”

Furthermore, she said, getting up a serious head of steam, maybe Dublin taxi drivers should get sensitivity training so that they might think twice before suggesting a prospective passenger walk, because then it might occur to them that all disabilities are not visible and, maybe, instead of presenting alternatives to passengers, they should just shut up and drive.

The man in the group somewhat timorously proposed that the cabdriver who had semi-baulked at a short journey was nonetheless a great story teller. To which they all fair mindedly agreed.

One of the smokers went further, suggesting that almost everybody they had met while in Ireland had been a great storyteller; funny and interesting, even aside from the comperes at the shows they’d seen. No, the Irish seemed to have a particular genius for telling stories.

They’re right, of course. We are fantastic storytellers. It gives us the gift of cheap radio.

Think about that swatch of women describing to Joe Duffy their treatment in maternity hospitals. The level of detail, the passion, the humour of our storytelling, is fantastic.

Until a couple of centuries ago, we had no choice, in this country, about storytelling. Our culture was oral. The majority of Irish people couldn’t read or write.

The people who were valued by society were the seanchaí, the oul’ fellas who sat beside the fire and spun out their tales of heroism and hookery.

OK, maybe they weren’t as entertaining as a good Netflix series, but when the choices for an evening’s entertainment were limited, a good storyteller was worth his or her weight in gold.

They’re coming back into their own, the story-tellers. It’s the new fashion in business. It’s popping up everywhere. Companies are sending their staff members on storytelling courses.

Now, I hate to stick a pin in a market from which I stand to profit, but the fact is that Irish business people don’t need training in storytelling. What they need is PowerPoint amputation.

It was the deadly advance of PowerPoint, a few decades ago, that screwed with our natural storytelling talents. Instead of starting, effectively, with the magic words ‘once upon a time’, business speakers learned, instead, to begin with a slide filled with the bullet points they planned to shoot at their audience, although ‘shoot’ might be implying a directness and impact that PowerPoint presentations never have. Ever.

The PowerPoint affliction mainly affects very large companies. I regularly do a little test before reviewing a presentation to be made by a CEO, CFO, or member of the lead team.

“So what’s the story of your presentation?” I casually ask, while people check the clicker and the coffee. (Of the two, the coffee is immeasurably more important.) The speaker, knowing that my camera is not running, talks like a human. Gets to the point. Paints pictures.

Tells stories, even.

Then, it comes time for them to do the formal run through, and the slides take over. Now, the oddity is that, once you’ve reached the top in any large organisation, you don’t develop your own slides.

So someone in another department, who — as frequently emerges — has no insight into how their speaker’s mind actually works, develops a set of slides into which the speaker then obediently tries to fit themselves.

In the process, everything personal, everything credible, everything that would make the communication interesting, understandable, and memorable, gets flattened out of it.

It’s undoubtedly a good thing for general business communication that Ted talks have become such a phenomenon, because their rules are brutally, rigidly prescriptive. One of those rules is: No PowerPoint.

Another is that the speaker must start with a story. It can be a story about a moment of epiphany. It can be a story explaining the speaker’s unique qualifications to talk on this topic. It can be a riotously funny story.

Ireland tells wonderful stories when it’s gossiping, bitching, or entertaining. Because we’re good at it. Reintroducing it into the workplace is overdue. And simple.

Ted talks’ rules are brutally, rigidly prescriptive. One of those rules is: No PowerPoint.

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