Here is the full text of author and storytelling expert Dave Lieber’s talk titled “The power of storytelling to change the world” at TEDxSMU 2013 conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
And then 20 years ago, I moved to Texas. I’m not from here; I didn’t know what makes you laugh or cry. I’d never been here before, but I’m hired to be a newspaper columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
And I notice right away that Texans are the most welcoming group of people that you could ever imagine, and they have a unique way of doing it: they ask you a series of questions.
And the first question I got asked — it’s your state slogan — “Boy, where you from?”
It’s a trick question because when I would tell them where I was from, they would quote back a picante sauce commercial from TV. How does that go?
“New York City?”
And what’s the next line?
“Get a rope.”
I didn’t know what that meant. But the Texan has to connect, so the second question I’m getting asked everywhere I go after they find out I’m a New Yorker, is they lean in, and they say, “What church do you go to?”
And that’s a trick question too, because I would tell them I don’t go to church, and they’d get upset; they’d go, “Why not? Don’t you believe in the Lord?”
I’d say, “No, I do believe in the Lord.”
“Then why don’t you go to church?”
And I gave the worst answer you could give in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1993. I said, “Because I’m Jewish.”
And the Texan would drop back, and because it’s in the DNA of a Texan to connect, he’d then say, “Well, I knew a Jewish boy in the army 20 years ago. Do you know Lieutenant Harry Cohen?”
And I’d say, “No, sir. It’s a big tribe.”
So my first week, I wrote a column explaining that I was new here and didn’t know this three-word expression “chicken-fried steak.” I asked if it was chicken or steak.
I mean, it’s kind of funny to you, but you’ve got to picture this: here I am in this conservative, Republican, mostly Baptist, native Texan, everybody’s married area, and not one person said, “What we need here is a liberal, divorced, Democratic, New York City Jew.”
Let me stop and just share with you what I did there, for a moment, because I wish you could see your faces right now. You look great.
I mean, you’ve been here for eight hours, and you’ve heard amazing group of speakers, and you look like you’re ready, just starting.
I love the smiles on your face because what I did there was start with the story. I believe in the power of the story to change the world. And I didn’t get up here and read my business card to you — my Dave Lieber, Dallas Morning News, watch-dog columnist, you know, New Yorker, come to Texas — because that’s kind of boring and that’s bullet points.
And the brain is set up to listen to a story because it engaged your billions of neural endings — this is the only science I’m giving you — the billions of neural endings were kind of flapping up high, and that’s my job.
But right now, I’m consciously lowering them because I stopped telling a story. Now’s when you can yawn. And it’s kind of interesting. Don’t you think that some of these scientists, as brilliant as they are, cutting-edge research, they had a problem with the story?
They go to the board, the PowerPoint; they go to the bullet points because that’s what they know. And I’ll just suggest, throw out some crazy thought that that’s why sports is more popular than science.
Because sports is a story with a beginning, middle and end, a hero, a villain, a winner, a loser, and science is a lot of numbers and data and questions and work.
I’m going to show you, actually, how to tell the story because everyone needs to tell their story and the story of whatever they’re trying to accomplish. And it’s a simple formula, and I don’t need the board to do it.
Because I can control this space because your mind is so powerful. So here’s the formula.
Okay, pretend I’ve got paint that’s a straight line across where you get to meet the character, and that’s what we just did when you met that character — me, coming here — and then the hero goes out into the world, and the villain knocks the story down into a low point, and the low point of the story, where everything is dark, is the most important.
But then, in any good story, the hero has some heroic qualities that he or she pulls out of his pocket, doesn’t even know they have, and uses those heroic qualities to lift up, pushing up against the villain to the climax of the story, and then the curlicue at the end is the denouement — the loose ends must be tied.
So this is the formula, and that’s what we want. Not bing, bing, bang, bong.
This story thing started in the caves with the caveman with the story — getting the mastodon. It goes on to the Greek and Roman myths. It’s the Bible — the greatest stories ever told. It’s Shakespeare — the comedy and the tragedy. It’s the Victorian novel. It’s the Nickelodeon, it’s silent movies, it’s loud movies.
It’s TV — the novel of our time is the TV, the happy comedies and the tragedies. We saw that here: we saw Amanda Jackson. The first time you gave spontaneous applause today, in your seat this morning, was when you heard that Amanda Jackson of DeVerse Lounge, when you heard that she gulped when she said her name, and then she attended, and then she got up and spoke and was a star.
And you, your neural brain endings made you applaud. That was cool. That’s what I’m saying.
Dr. Judith Allen tells a story about her brother, and he’s down in the low point; he’s a kid on the couch going… (Snore), and now he’s the chief information officer of Toyota. And of course, my colleague, who works at the Dallas Morning News — long before I got there in May — and was a superstar, Rena Pederson, right out of the gate, she told the story of the Nelson Mandela and Burma, and we were captivated because she knows what I’m talking about.
I have to do this story thing because I’ve been in the newspaper business now for 38 years, writing for daily newspapers. And I’m worried that I’ll spend two days on something and write my heart out, and you’ll just go like that and skip it. Or like that and skip it.
And so I’ve come to depend on the power of the story to get me everywhere. I write a column twice a week where I expose corruption in business and government, Fridays and Sundays. Tomorrow’s column, in the Dallas Morning News — and you can read it on dallasnews.com/watchdog — is the terrible tale of the life and death of a con man. The upshot is he died.
So let me just — now let me raise your neural endings just a little bit and prove my point because I’ll go back to my story. So I’m going in my downward spiral here in Texas. I mean, I am just not understanding anybody.
People would ask me where I was from; they’d want to hang me. Then these women would hear that I was Jewish, and they’d say, “Well, bless your heart.”
I knew they weren’t blessing my heart; I figured that out after six months.
Look, everybody in Fort Worth was fixing, but no one was ever fixing. Y’all could be singular when used with the plural of y’all, which is what? All y’all.
The crazy thing was the food; it threw me off. I didn’t know what to do with the flat pancake. Someone said you take the tortilla and the guacamole, and you put the meat in there, and you roll it up, and you have a fajita.
And when I did, I took a bite and everything shot out, but I was on my second Texas-size margarita, so I didn’t care.
People told me, “Don’t ever use your car horn here.” And I didn’t.
And they said, “Don’t ever give anyone the obscene gesture,” and I stopped.
Twenty years, next month, of finger-free driving. I’m going to get my chip from Fingerholics Anonymous. But the time I feel most like a Texan is when I’m driving on, I get on 635, and someone does it to me, and I roll down my window, and I say, “You go back to New York.”
I got the cowboy costume. Don’t go to Cavender’s and ask for a cowboy costume. But I’m not at my low point yet.
Now, the low point is — I’m going to stop. Neural brain endings — permission to die. The low point is the part that we care most about because I don’t care about your success; I want to hear about your failure.
I want to hear how you took something bad that happened and turned it into heroic and became who you are today because I’m going to learn from that. That’s what I focus on, and my low point was pretty damn low.
I decided that what I needed to do to impress all y’all was go ride a bull in a rodeo. And I found a rodeo that let me enter; it was a church rodeo. But the bull didn’t know that.
And I will say to you on the oath of TED that I was on that bull for 10 of the longest seconds of my life. The only problem was the bull stayed in the stall for the first 8.
And when some guy slapped him, and he took off, that’s when I got the other 1.6 seconds. I didn’t care though; it was a joyous ride because when I landed, I knew all y’all were going to like me.
And I landed, and I was in the lights, and there was 200 Baptists laughing, and I forgot the next part of the book, which started with the word “Run!” and I wrote about it in the paper, and everybody thought that I was making way too big a deal of 1.6 seconds on a bull, you know?
So that was my low point.
So how did I get out of this? Well, I have lived what I call “Dave’s magic, V-shaped storytelling formula” because at that turn where I had to get out of this — I was about to quit because Texas was killing me — I decided to do what a Texan does: I decided to pray.
And I knew what to pray for. It was the spring of 1994, and I said, “Lord, I have been here for nine months, and these Texans are killing me. If I hear one more Texan say, ‘That Dave Lieber guy, he fell off the turnip truck,’ I don’t know what I’m going to do, because I don’t even know what a turnip truck is. But Lord, please send me a good, strong, mature, wise woman, and if you do, I’ll treat her with respect and dignity. And if you can’t send me one right away, send me a sign that a good woman is coming my way, and I’ll hang on. Amen.”
Because nobody would fix anybody up with me because they’d go, “I know a guy you can go out with, a Jewish bull rider.”
But do you know what happens when you pray in Texas? Yeah. So one week later, I’m introduced to this amazing woman. Her name is Karen, and she has two kids, a nine-year-old boy who looks like Dennis the Menace and an eleven-year-old girl who’s taller than me, even in my new cowboy boots, and Desiree calls me “Little Man.”
And so I say, “Hi, Desiree, how are you?” and she comes up and she grabs me by the chin, and she playfully warns me, “You better not hurt my momma’s feelings.”
And I went, “I won’t.”
But they also had this dog, a little runt retriever named Sadie, who was mean and snarling at me. She just couldn’t stand me. I went over to her, and she had a panic attack — just flipped around and let off a smell that cleared the room, and I said, “What’s wrong with your dog?”
And they said, “She hates men,” and I said, “Why?”
And they said, “Because a man abused her, and we rescued her, and now there’s no man here and you’re giving her flashbacks.”
This is what Sadie, the poor doggy, looked like, okay? And so I tried so hard to win her over; I would take her for walks and give her oatmeal and bones and anything I could think of that she liked, and she’d just look at me, and she’d go, “Hunh,” and it was demoralizing.
But I figured out right away what the problem was: this dog was a native Texan.
God answered my prayer in a week: I met this fantastic woman, Karen, and we fell in love, and I love that little boy, and that girl was a little tricky because she was suspicious of men.
And one day I took her to the mall for no reason, bought her a pair of shoes and told her I loved her, and in the car coming home, she said, “Little Man, there’s hope for you.”
I decided to take the V all the way to the climax and the denouement. I decided to write a column in the newspaper in which I would propose marriage.
They said, “Don’t. We don’t give personal details of our life like that.”
And I said, “Why not? These people hate me out here.”
They said, “Well, what if Karen says no,” and I said, “We’ll run a correction box.”
So I went and I pulled out this heroic quality of writing the best column I could ever write. It started, “Here in Texas, I’ve met the woman of my dreams. Unfortunately, she lives with the dog of my nightmares.”
And I talked about how we met and the boy and the girl and the dog, and then when I made that heroic turn, I said, “Now, I see the hole in my life needs more than just a dog to fill it. Karen, there’s something magical about you, me, the girl, the boy and even your doggone little dog. Karen, I love you. I want to stay forever; I really do. Will you marry me?”
And I read it to her at six in the morning on October 2, 1994, when it was still dark outside, and in shock, she said yes, and then the sun came up, and the readers read the column, and in shock, they said yes too.
Because finally, I wasn’t like every — I wasn’t that stupid, idiot Yankee boy anymore. Now, I was like them: I had a pet that didn’t like me, I had stepkids and a blended family, and I was able to connect.
And people would say, “You’re the boy that wrote the story about the dog, aren’t you?”
They wouldn’t say, “What church do you go to?” They’d say, “What did the dog say?”
So I raised those two kids, and Desiree, that girl that called me Little Man, she’s sitting over there right now — that was 20 years ago. Hi, Desiree. I love you.
Let me just tie up the loose end by telling you that we’ve been married 19 years, and that power of that story thing, that works in a memo and a paragraph and a page and a speech, this sweep of that’s what life is. It’s my life here.
The denouement is we tied up our loose end when we had a child of our own and I named him Austin Lieber, and you know why, right? Because Waco Waxahachie Lieber don’t sound good.
So tell your story. Take the data of your life and turn it into real people doing real things, and you will move mountains, you will change the world.
I know that because I’ve lived my life that way, and that’s the message that I brought to you today. And that’s the message of TEDxSMU: change the world through storytelling.
This has been an honor to be your last speaker; I’ll see you in the newspaper.
My name’s Dave Lieber and thank you very, very much.
Resources for Further Reading:
- The Power of Civil Momentum: Annamalai Kuppusamy (Transcript)
- What Does It Mean To Be Yourself? – Carly Sotas (Transcript)
- Help For Kids The Education System Ignores: Victor Rios (Transcript)
- How Acts of Kindness Sparked a Global Movement: Asha Curran (Transcript)
- Neil MacGregor: 2600 Years of History In One Object (Transcript)