The Storytelling Secret That Changes Everything is: You get to decide where to end your story.
On the surface, this ‘secret’ may seem stultifyingly obvious. But take a moment to let it sink in. The ending of a story is where you leave the audience. It’s the difference between leaving Bambi motherless in the forest or Snow White lingering at death’s door after falling victim to the poisoned apple and happily ever after.
How you end your story leaves your listener or reader with an indelible impression. In a real way, it creates the lens through which they view you, your life, or your work.
Here are two examples to illustrate the power of putting this secret into action; one is personal, the other professional.
First the personal.
He shared the story with me and I immediately saw why this happened: the story piled one unfortunate event on top of another until it all finally ended with the hero, my friend, struggling to climb a set of stairs with a broken leg, a shattered wrist, and a concussion while the woman he loved chatted with a guy she was dating just a few feet away. It was like a long descent into the heart of darkness without any hope of redemption.
After listening to the story, I asked a simple question: ‘What happened next?’
My friend smiled. It turns out that, as his various injuries healed, he started a relationship with the woman and they dated for three years. As he shared this, his entire face lit up, his body lifted, and his voice sounded more vibrant.
I stared at him for a moment. Then, as gently as I could, suggested that he might consider shifting the ending of the story to incorporate the shift that brought him, and the situation, out of absolute despair. He looked at me blankly for a moment. This shift had never occurred to him.
Our brains are fascinating machines–they often create artificial divisions to make sense of events. For my friend, the despair of his original story and the happiness of the relationship that eventually grew between him and his girlfriend had no relationship to each other. He’d always considered them to be separate stories!
Without altering a single fact and still hewing to the truth of the events, the story transformed from a trudge into despair into a tale of resilience and hope. All the transformation required was a simple change in time frame, unearthing new connective tissue, and choosing a different ending.
Now the professional.
In 2008, I worked as Director of Development at a service center for homeless youth that relied entirely on private contributions from foundations and individuals for its funding. When the recession hit, it decimated the organization’s budget and, together with the Board of Directors, the management team made the tough decision to cut expenses by 50 percent.
This meant laying off staff and reducing services. And it meant that our financials looked terrible on paper. Taken on its own, the financial data reflected an organization in crisis that would probably not last the year.
In the midst of the chaos, stress, and emotional turmoil of the moment, we had to figure out how to communicate our decision to the organization’s supporters. Here’s what we knew:
We had to be transparent: no fudging of numbers or glossing over the challenges we were facing.
The numbers looked bad.
We needed to preserve the relationship with our contributors.
We quickly realized that if we ended the story with the decision to cut the budget, we were portraying ourselves as a weak, reactive organization. Not exactly the type of agency that people would feel good about supporting. So we took a deep breath and widened the frame of the story, stretching it into the future.
The story we developed placed the budget cuts in the center of a story that ended with the future recovery of the organization. More importantly, the recovery would happen strategically and with a greater emphasis on sustainability than the period of rapid growth that preceded the Great Recession. This story did not hide any information and fully owned the current challenges while framing them as a learning opportunity that would ultimately lead to a stronger organization able to serve more people in the long term.
Both institutional and individual contributors responded with overwhelming support. While I’m no longer with that organization, I keep in touch. Today, six years after the recession, it has fully recovered and entered a new phase of responsible growth. None of that would have been possible if we had not shifted the ending of our story, transforming a time of challenge into a cause for hope.
Changing the ending changed everything.
A few questions for you:
As you read these stories, what comes up for you? Are there stories in your professional and personal life that feel as if they’ve been stuck in a negative place? What impact does shifting the ending have?
Thank you for reading; hope this was useful!