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The stories we tell

Now, more than ever, stories matter.

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Tan Wen (above) and Asha Jacob take the stage at Story Slam Singapore, where storytelling sessions attract a robust attendance.

Tan Wen and Asha Jacob (above) take the stage at Story Slam Singapore, where storytelling sessions attract a robust attendance.

"I've learnt that deep down we all share each other's pain, sorrow, grief and joy. This unity through a shared experience with complete strangers is powerful, and it's the reason I come back month after month." - Sam Hussain, a regular at Story Slam Singapore

Story Slam Singapore.

Story Slam Singapore.

Taiwanese-born Kelly Chen, 36, was one of the “books” at Human Library Singapore’s March event.


Story guru Bobette Buster.

Director of The Thought Collective, Tong Yee.

"Roses are red,
violets are blue,
umbrellas get lost,
so why don't you?"

WHEN Santhanaram Jayaram - or Ram as his friends call him - delivered this poem, the whole room burst into unbridled laughter. This was what he had imagined women would tell him if they weren't treated with respect.

The laughter coach and corporate trainer was at Story Slam Singapore's February event, regaling the audience with a tale of how a friend's attempt to matchmake him had not quite worked out.

Armed with a phone number, he had texted the lady in question to ask her out, only to receive her reply - one month later. In the past, he said, he would've have replied with something nasty. But with age, he had learnt to not write people off that easily, as we might all be in different places in our respective lives.

This is not, ordinarily, something you would tell a roomful of strangers. But what Mr Jayaram did is something humans have been doing for centuries. We tell stories about ourselves and the world at large all the time. We shape disparate events into a tale with a satisfactory conclusion, or at least one that makes sense.

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Some stories solidify as they are passed down through generations. Others, increasingly, flit through the Internet - distilled into photographs, 140 characters and cryptic status updates.

Now, more than ever, stories matter. Tides have been turned and elections won by the power of a compelling narrative. Truth be told, the person who tells the better story usually decides how it ends.

In Singapore, the appeal of a good yarn is becoming apparent. There is Story Slam Singapore, a live storytelling event which started in March 2014, that is held on the last Saturday of each month with a different theme. And there is Human Library Singapore, a quarterly event initiated in October 2016, where people with interesting stories about their lives are loaned out as "books" to attendees who gather around to "read" them.

Attendance at these events has been robust. On average, Story Slam Singapore hosts about 45 people at their sessions with a maximum of 10 storytellers each night. Similarly at Human Library Singapore, all 1,500 reading slots with 47 human "books" were snapped up for their event in March.

One such "book" was Watson*, who shared her experience with Dissociative Identity Disorder, or having multiple identities. While she has more than 30 alternate personalities (alters), there are three dominant ones she identifies with as her "partners" - Watson, Yue and William. Watson explains that it's therapeutic to share what she goes through. She even jokes that thanks to the movie Split - which features a man with 23 different personalities - she has never felt more popular in her life.

The confessional nature of such events is a welcome challenge to the perception that Singaporeans are a reticent lot. Perhaps all this time, what we've been waiting for is someone to listen to our stories.

According to Tong Yee, a social entrepreneur and director of The Thought Collective, Singapore is not any more reserved than other countries' inhabitants. He says that the issue is not the unwillingness to tell a story, but whether one has an audience to tell that story to.

What we need is a platform to share our experiences, Tang Chee Seng, a coordinator of Story Slam Singapore, believes. "It's as though there's an unspoken need to bond with others over shared experiences that we've somehow filled by building our community," he says.

Interestingly, Ajith Isaac Amrithraj, an organiser for Human Library Singapore, says that even if Singaporeans are perceived to be more reserved than foreigners, this makes them excellent listeners.

How stories help us

As the world gets smaller, it is important that we continue to make room for stories.

"A story is the chief means by which we break down our individual barriers and connect with another person. Stories inherently create empathy and imagination," Bobette Buster, story guru and consultant for leading studios such as Disney and Pixar, tells BT Weekend.

At its core, storytelling helps us to understand ourselves. Laavanya Kathiravelu, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU's) Division of Sociology, theorises that storytelling conveys who we are and what we stand for. It is integral to how we "form or perform identities in everyday life," she says.

For Sam Hussain, a regular at Story Slam events, sharing stories has made him realise how universal our life experiences are.

"I've learnt that deep down we all share each other's pain, sorrow, grief and joy. This unity through a shared experience with complete strangers is powerful, and it's the reason I come back month after month," he explains.

But perhaps the greatest connection is formed when we see someone accomplish something seemingly impossible. In her book, Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens, Ms Buster examines "the story behind the story". When we watch athletes do well, she says, we're interested in how they got there and the sacrifices they had to make. At the same time, we are compelled to chart their journey and draw inspiration from their stories.

Joseph Schooling's path to clinching Singapore's first-ever Olympic gold medal last year had all the makings of a good story, both on a personal level and as a wider narrative for the nation.

For those of us too old for a sporting career, we took vicarious pleasure in Mr Schooling's success. Perhaps we were rooting for the underdog. Perhaps we identified with him as a fellow Singaporean. Regardless, all of us relished his victory because we knew how hard he had worked to get there. In a nation that emphasises academic excellence, Mr Schooling's story represents a successful deviation from the norm.

Facts don't change our minds, stories do

Interestingly, our subconscious mind might have difficulty discerning between fact and fiction at times. Take the visualisation or meditation exercises which are popular today. In a Huffington Post article titled How to use visualization to achieve your goals, social scientist Frank Niles suggests that visualisation is effective because our brain interprets imagery as equivalent to real-life action.

That might explain why we go to movies and scream in octaves we never knew we could reach, or shed tears while watching Korean dramas. In those moments, we feel real panic or grief.

This also means that narratives need not be true in order to move an audience. A prime example would be Donald Trump's victory during the United States' latest presidential election. While he had lacked experience and coherence, the story he had spun was one where he could "make America great again", and people bought into that story, "alternative facts" and all.

Even as stories have the power to soothe, they have the ability to seduce. We need to remain aware of our own biases and ask the right questions about the stories we hold dear, so that we do not end up in an ideological echo-chamber. This can be easier said than done.

"Facts can be boring. The world is full of things to pay attention to, from reality TV to your argumentative children, from a friend's Instagram to a tax bill. Why bother with anything so tedious as facts?" economist Tim Harford wrote in a piece called The problem with facts in the Financial Times last month.

Wielded well, stories galvanise people into doing great things. According to The Thought Collective's Mr Tong, a story is a mechanism by which to introduce emotion. These emotions may then translate into actions.

"Find a new way to frame stories and you get a new emotional response," he says.

The good news is that we all have the power to rewrite the stories of our own lives.

"At the darkest point of your life, the one key thing that will get you out is your imagination. You have to be able to find a new story for yourself. If we can change the story, we can impact the future," Mr Tong says.

We are the stories we tell ourselves

Being able to form narratives also helps us to make sense of our past. Bobby Cheon, assistant professor at NTU's Division of Psychology says, "People who organise their lives into narratives about redemption - appreciating positive outcomes from hardship - may experience greater feelings of well-being."

The bad news, however, is that many of the stories we tell ourselves can be damaging. Brené Brown, a professor who researches vulnerability, says that "the most dangerous narratives we make up are the ones that diminish our inherent worthiness".

"Just because someone isn't willing to love us, doesn't mean we're unlovable," Dr Brown says.

As such, it is important not to relinquish control of what we believe in; changing the lens through which we view ourselves will in turn affect how others perceive us.

Annie Chan, an events consultant who shared her experience of being a divorcee at Human Library Singapore, is a firm believer in this notion. Approached for advice by attendees who'd been made apprehensive by the many divorces happening around them, her response had been almost universal in its applicability: "Their story is not your story; learn to love yourself."

* Note: The name used here is the name of one of her alters.

13 years, 11 companies

Taiwanese-born Kelly Chen, 36, was one of the "books" at Human Library Singapore's March event. Having worked in 11 companies over 13 years, she was befittingly given the "title" of "Job Hopper". The longest she has stayed in a job is five years, while her shortest stint lasted three months.

Ms Chen first came to Singapore in 2014. While she majored in Economics, she has since gone on to work in the fields of engineering, tech and sales.

Storytelling helps her understand herself better, Ms Chen tells BT Weekend. "Every conversation is like a mirror. When you reorganise (your thoughts) and share them with others, you do a lot of reflection," she says.

However, job-hopping isn't for everyone, she notes, and one should be prepared for the difficulties that lie ahead.

In one particular job interview, she had to deal with a human resource manager who insulted her because of what the latter had thought of as Ms Chen's irrelevant experience.

Even so, she firmly believes that skills gained from previous jobs can be useful. In fact, a former boss had told her that he did not need someone with the technical expertise. "But how you think, resolve problems, and collaborate with others - those are difficult to learn," she remembers him saying.

These days, she works as a product manager dealing with data analytics. She hopes that her story inspires others to work towards their dream jobs, and serves as a reminder for employers to be more open-minded when recruiting people from different backgrounds.

Tell it like it is

Pointers on what makes a good story, and how to tell it well, from story guru Bobette Buster, and director of The Thought Collective, Tong Yee

1. Tell a story like you’re speaking to a friend
Imagine you’re talking to the one person in the world whom you can say anything to.

2. In the story, there needs to be a hero you care about, caught in a dilemma
This hero could be a person or a value system. Without something that is at stake, there’s no story.

3. Dig deeper to find the story behind the story
Ask the right questions to unlock the reasons to why people do the things they do.

4. Be vulnerable and speak about what you know best
Don’t be afraid to show your emotions honestly. This creates empathy and resonance.

5. Use juxtaposition
Take two opposing ideas and collide them. The more extreme the ideas, the more interesting.

For more stories, check these out

In Singapore

Our Grandfather Story
A Facebook page dedicated to telling your next-door Ah-Gong stories

Millennials of Singapore
A Facebook page and website featuring everyday millennials in Singapore

Metaphors Be With You
A curated personal story showcase held at the Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity

Telling Stories Live
A website featuring podcasts from their monthly events


Great Big Story
A video network dedicated to telling stories often overlooked

A website archiving interviews through bite-sized podcasts

The Moth
An organisation advocating the craft of storytelling; their site has interesting videos and audio files

This Is Actually Happening
A podcast dedicated to first-person accounts of sudden upheavals or changes

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