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Back in the Saddle: Storytime

It’s been a busy January, and I haven’t known quite where to begin the new year. So I’ll begin with this: I’m going to be thinking about stories this year.

The most compelling and entertaining presentation I heard at the AALS (American Association of Law Schools) annual meeting in San Francisco two weeks ago was on storytelling as pedagogy. And the most compelling and entertaining presenter was a professional storyteller, Joel Ben Izzy.

I’ve heard Joel’s own story before. Like me, he has a Stanford degree (though his is in storytelling, naturally), and the Stanford alumni folks have long delighted in showing him off in the magazine. He makes what I sense is a nice living telling stories to lawyers and law firms, and teaching them how to tell stories of their own, and those things might be reasons to be cynical about Joel and stories and storytelling.

But here’s the thing, and why I’m not cynical. He’s very, very good. And the thing that makes him good isn’t his timing, or rhythm, or sense of history and tradition. Those are terrific, but not distinctive, in my book. The thing that makes him good, and the thing that I’ll be thinking about for a while, is his use of sound. I suspect that this is what delights kids about stories, and it’s what delights longtime radio listeners: it’s the sound. Joel’s stories are compelling because in the modulation of his voice — and in the modulation of other sounds that he creates — he gets you to listen. On the Net and elsewhere, I’ll be listening this year, but I suspect that I’ll be seeing more stories than I’ll be hearing.

Here’s a question, then, that I want to chew on: I’ve suspected that one of the reasons that Net technologies are so threatening to so many people is that the Net doesn’t do a good job of telling its own stories. Other people tell stories for it, and those other people often have reasons to tell only the ugly, dark stories. (I’ve just unloaded a big bundle of metaphors, but I’ll untangle them later.) How do the better stories get heard — both literally and metaphorically?