Are storytelling techniques the new social lubricant?

Posted by  Raf Stevens —August 11, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling, Culture, Insight

US human rights activist and Professor of Law Bryan Stevenson starts his Ted Talk below, about the injustices in the US legal system with a wonderful personal story.

In fact, that’s a common feature of all Ted Talks that are viewed hundreds of thousands of times. They pull the listener in with a ”pull story”, a story that connects. For Stevenson, this story is about his grandmother and how she is the reason he never drinks alcohol.

“One day, when the house was full of grandchildren,” he says, “they called me and stared at me for a while. I think I was around 10 years old and always loved her very much. She was someone who could cuddle up to you until you almost suffocated and with feelings of warmth and love.

And an hour later she would ask you if you could still feel her hugs. Anyway, when she stared at me, it felt very special too. That was what she told me. You are very special and you will be able to do things nobody else can. But you have to promise me three things.”

Love your mother, do the right thing, never drink alcohol

The grandmother of Bryan Stevenson had ten children and a whole lot of grandchildren. She loved them all very much and without them knowing, she called each of them but to him he was very special. She indeed let them also promise three things: they would always love their mother, they would always do the right thing, even if it would be the hardest and that they would never drink alcohol.

The latter was because she had seen how much harm alcohol can cause. Family members had died of liver disease, and somehow, irreconcilable quarrels were the result of excessive alcohol consumption. Anyway, Stevenson has always kept that promise to his grandmother and tells how he has drawn strength from it to shape his identity and to become who he became with that identity.

Dealing with stress and burnout

In our region of the world, we are all looking for strength and identity too. For seven consecutive years of economic stagnation – the economic activity in Europe did not increase since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – have led to uncertainty for a huge numbers of people.

Combined with the fact that competition can emerge from the most unexpected places and that some guy with a hoodie can invent an app that causes the loss of thousands of jobs, results in unprecedented levels of stress and an increasing number of burnouts that some, perhaps against their better judgment, tackled with too much booze.

They have clearly never heard the speech of Bryan Stevenson.

In any case, it is because of that stress and burnout that coaches who guide people to feel better about themselves, to rediscover the passion in their lives, to rediscover their own strength, have plenty of work. There are hiking coaches, coaches who work with art, life planners and many other coaches who help people to be less uncertain, to find their way, to promote their well-being and….to find their identity. And more are coming every day.

Is alcohol our ultimate social lubricant?

One of the forerunners in this field is Katrin Van de Water of “Passion for Work”. In September 2013, she organised a meeting in Antwerp between a number of entrepreneurs to talk about passion in their work. One of those entrepreneurs was someone with a particular profile. An enthusiastic young man who just started a new task full of passion – he would help people to stop drinking.

It is now two years later and Michael Nicklaus, that’s who I was referring to, continues to appear in the media regularly. On the Dutch blog site, I read a very interesting interview with him. Here, he says alcohol is our ultimate social lubricant. I quote from the interview:

“We are so estranged that we immediately get wasted in social situations, just to be able to handle it. Let’s go back to our childhood. In the beginning, children’s parties were often a bit “awkward”. But when Mom was baking pancakes and came back, everyone had found their way into the room and we were playing together.

Nowadays we are no longer connected with ourselves and we want to avoid these uncomfortable situations as quickly as possible by drinking alcohol.”

It sounds rather harsh, but there’s a lot of truth in there. We are all looking for a connection as a result of our security due to the economic situation. Networking is the buzz word and every week there are network events, “open coffees” and numerous other initiatives to bring us together, but when it comes to an evening event the cava, white and red wine and beer are served as oil on a tray to lubricate the networks.

And for some people it’s also a way to forget their problems. Michael Nicklaus is not wrong when he says that in a lot of cases, many problems come from alcohol and often times, we ignore them. Fatal traffic accidents, relationships, more burnouts … you name it. Either way, a lot of damage tax payers have to pay for.

Especially the bit where Nicklaus refers to alcohol as a generally accepted social lubricant intrigues me. Because actually, I came to the realisation that the storytelling techniques in my book “Leadership, storytelling and the power of connection” work just as well as a social lubricant and help create solidarity in a world engulfed by uncertainty.

Are storytelling techniques the new social lubricant?

In other words, storytelling can be a much healthier alternative to achieve the same goal. For all the people who want to drink less – probably a lot, since we are all still very busy with our health – the storytelling techniques are the appropriate way to use as a new social lubricant.

What if we just replaced alcoholic beverages with stories at the next networking event? Pull Stories, which highlight the vulnerability of those who tell them. Pull Stories provide emotional involvement like Stevenson’s story about his grandmother and Michael Nicklaus on the fact that avoiding alcohol can create a strong identity.

Effective storytelling efforts can create unity, eliminate uncertainty, the urge to drink alcohol and cause us to save millions in social security. In my book, I talk about how storytelling is the ultimate means to achieve change projects, and for good reason.

About  Raf Stevens

Raf Stevens is the author of Leadership, Storytelling and the Power of Connection and has over twenty years experience in communications. Ten years ago he decided to follow his passion: storytelling. Since then Raf has helped dozens of organizations and their leaders in the search for stories to create a stronger connection. He is a partner of Anecdote and a licensed Storytelling for Leaders® trainer.


  1. Tom Ware says:

    You are right about Storytelling in TED and TEDx Talks. Nearly all involve story; some many short stories. Yes, it would be wonderful if Storytelling became a ‘Social Lubricant’ that replaced, or at least ameliorated the need to escape into an ‘alcohol-induced’ social intercourse defence system.

    Will it work?

    I didn’t notice an strategies mentioned.

    We know that alcohol gets everyone talking but very few if anyone one listening. A quick observation at any hotel bar will convince you of that. But how do we get situations where one person is telling a story and a lot of others are listening except at those business or formal and semi-formal gatherings? You go to a conference and listen. You go to a professional storytellers meeting or convention and a lot of people listen. It isn’t a matter of getting people to tell stories. They will, drunk or sober. It’s a matter of getting people willing to listen to stories in those ‘social settings.’

    I’d be happy to hear what you have to say on that subject.

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