Every year, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is given to an individual who has “has an impact on American society in ways similar to” the eponymous storyteller and humorist. Late last year, comedian Dave Chappelle was awarded the prize; and if one were to search up the clips of those speeches meant to honor Chappelle, you will get the sense that he not only has made an impact on those of us who sit and home and consume his content, but also on those who are working in the field.
Griot of the Village
In the speech, Chappelle highlighted the oral tradition in his house growing up, and how his mother encouraged him to be a “griot.” A griot, as he explained, was a person in Africa charged with keeping the village’s stories and tell future generations. That connection obviously resonated with Chappelle, and he made that the foundation of his comedy career. Chappelle’s Show, in two seasons, became a cultural zeitgeist in that short time. Chappelle and his fellow writers’ ability to craft stories that simultaneously manage to tickle its audience’s funny bone and challenge them on social issues made it one of the most successful television shows of all time… again in only two seasons.
Early on, he understood the importance of a village’s — or any society’s — stories. They’re essential.
Lincoln the Griot
Abraham Lincoln has been studied quite a bit. In fact, according to a tour at Ford’s Theater — the place where Lincoln was shot and now serves as a museum in Washington, DC — the only historical figure who has had more books written about him is Jesus of Nazareth.
In the film Lincoln, the president’s wide use of storytelling is widely portrayed; he sometimes uses it to disarm his opponents, and at other times to make a wider point about a position he is taking.
But most of the time, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln uses a story to ease the tension in a room.
Early on, he uses a story to quell a cabinet debate that is growing more contentious each minute. Later in the film, he uses the same technique when speaking to Thaddeus Stevens, his philosophical opponent within the Republican Party.
But the most memorable storytelling scene in Lincoln occurs in a war room during the Second Battle of Fort Fisher. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, with stress obviously serving as his modus operandi, is yelling at his subordinates as he seeks updates about the Union attack on Fort Fisher. Suddenly, Lincoln surprises everyone when he shouts “Come on out, you old rat!” And with it, and despite an extra ornery Stanton marching off, Lincoln proceeds to tell a story about Ethan Allen. A bloody battle consumed the entire war room, and Lincoln — knowing the tense atmosphere — tells a funny story to lighten the mood. Soon after the story, Stanton comes back as the initial reports from the field enter. He and Lincoln comfort each other as the casualty numbers are too much to bear. Even though the Secretary of War was annoyed at Lincoln’s insistence to tell a story, it’s obvious that they have affection for one another.
Lincoln’s storytelling didn’t solve the main problem, but it made the problem more manageable to bear.
Griots of Business
In a 2016 article, Forbes writer Carmine Gallo listed “The 5 Storytellers You’ll Meet in Business.”
- Storytellers who ignite our fire.
- Storytellers who educate.
- Storytellers who simplify.
- Storytellers who motivate.
- Storytellers who launch movements.
Storytelling is effective, Gallo writes, because it “is not something we do; storytelling is who we are.” It’s one of the most human of actions.
Family elders pass stories on to the next generation. Friends tell funny anecdotes about their weekends. A new couple share their life stories with each other.
And this habit carries over into the workplace.
Leaders use stories to motivate their teams. Co-workers gather around the water cooler to tell stories about their lives outside of work. Effective salespeople tell stories to prospective clients. There is a reason for this.
Stories make us human, and help us connect with each other.
That is what Dave Chappelle knows. That is what Abraham Lincoln knew.