I bristled when Michael asked me to take the Beginner’s Storyteller Course with DISC. I’m not a beginner, I thought. I looked up at the shelf on my wall, the spiral binding of my master’s thesis about stories in science communication shining out at me. I’ve put in the work, mastered the subject, it’s right there in the title. In full honesty, in that moment I really wanted to say all of these things rolling around inside my head, and more.
There was another voice though. A softer-spoken one that knew from a lifetime of stories that even the wisest of heroes always has something to learn. It reminded me that I was far from the wisest of the group, and while I had indeed mastered a certain slice of storytelling in my own way, there was still plenty to learn.
When I opened my mouth, it was that little voice speaking. I agreed to take the Beginner’s Storytelling Course because it would be a good opportunity to get an inside look at DISC’s way of working. I was looking forward to seeing the workshop in action, learning how they do things, and see where it fits with my own approach.
Naturally, I was wrong in almost every way. I couldn’t have been happier with the outcome.
The Beginner’s Storytelling Course at DISC was on hold for a while. We waited for things to become safer. A year later, and we couldn’t wait anymore. Like most everyone else, we prefer to hold our courses in-person, especially with a storytelling course where things like body language, emotion, and physical presence come into play. Alas, we all must make due in these strange times.
So, for the first time in DISC history, the Beginner’s Course was held online. Terra was a natural fit for the course, he’s spent many evenings of his own time working in online acting sessions. This experience gave him a certain comfort with working in an online session for the entire weekend.
“One thing that I deliberately noticed, was taking enough time from each participant to hear their voice. Because in-person I could feel that much faster, in an online setting it is rather difficult. I also took time. I also wanted to create that feeling of the space. I’m not going to give a lecture, but I’ll let them participate, let them take responsibility for their parts.”
The DISC Beginner’s Course was a whole weekend affair. Practically, that translated to twelve hours of Zoom, with another hour and a half added on Saturday night if you wanted to go to the DISC Storytelling Cafe that happened to be the same weekend.
Of course, it didn’t feel like 12 hours of Zoom calls until well after it was finished. But we're getting ahead of ourselves by talking about the ending. We haven’t even gotten to the beginning yet.
Terra gathered the small group together at 11:00 on a Saturday morning, his smile filling the screen as a meditation fountain trickled in the background. He opened by introducing himself, and inviting us to do the same. We began the training laughing as Terra put us through exercises that felt like they must have been much easier in person. Now that we were all smiling, the actual work could begin.
Our instructor opened with a story of his own, a classic tale about a giant, a king, and how our actions can put what we once thought into a new light. We spent time together thinking about the bones of the story, what the essential components are and how they matter to the tale.
With that we were sent off with our first challenge: add your own flavour to the story and come back to tell the group a story with the same bones in a new way so that it becomes your own.
As we finished telling our own versions of the story, Terra smiled. Then, without warning, he announced that we were about to plunge off script and start a totally different exercise. It was time, he thought, for a change.
This is where the size of the group really started to come into play. The DISC team knew that working with the Beginner’s Course online would be a challenge, and therefore chose to keep the first group small. Terra and I were joined by Veronique and Stephanie, two self-styled “beginner” storytellers with their own reasons for joining the course.
Because it was only the four of us, Terra was able to work intensively with each member of the group. The small size also meant he could feel much easier when it was time for a change of pace, like when we needed it early on. I won’t go into all of the details here, because we must leave a little bit of magic mystery in this story. Stephanie agrees, “The exercises were intensive but I learned a lot from them each time. I also like to unexpectedness of them, they were not regular exercises and the surprise element made me fully aware, and in the present.”
Within that present, we were each then given a challenge. Towards the halfway mark of the first day, Terra gave us a list of titles and told us to pick from that the story we wanted to work with for the rest of the weekend. I’d had a few of my own already in my mind, and had even been hoping to work on at least one of them over the weekend.
At the same time, there was one title that did leap off the list at me. Without even really thinking, I blurted it out a moment quicker than Veronique. In a moment, it was settled. My story for the weekend was fixed. Again, it was not what I expected.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the next day working on these stories in a myriad of ways, stripping them down and building them back up to better understand what matters and what is non-essential.
Of course, in practice, it’s not that easy. Terra was quick to point out that the story starts with our own connection to it. The course crescendoed into a climatic teaching moment shortly after midday on Sunday.
Terra smiled again, but this time there was a certain shine in his eye. Then his face dampened and he grew serious, more serious than he had been the rest of the days combined. He asked us for a volunteer and then asked them if he could take the gloves off.
For the next…I struggle actually to recall how long this particular segment was…it mustn’t have been longer than twenty minutes…and yet it feels like it was an entire session in itself. Terra and Veronique worked with her story and what it meant to her. Terra asked tough, prying, deeply annoying questions. Carefully and safely, but always prodding, searching for that deeper emotion and meaning that was lying under the surface.
Once he bubbled it up, then he asked Veronique to start the story. She stumbled. The emotion was heavy, and it clouded all of our minds to the task at hand. Terra didn’t flinch. He smiled, took a breath, and asked if it was okay to start over.
The lather came easier the second time, and before anyone knew it, Veronique was truly telling us her story for the first time. It was a magical experience merely witnessing it. Veronique later said looking back, “The most important thing is a heartfelt connection to the story and to the audience. That’s where the magic is.”
From there it was simple, a race almost, to get each of the stories ready for the final test. The first time we should share them from start to finish with the entire group.
On that sunny Sunday afternoon, we closed up the Zoom with a short chat and long exhale, before slamming our laptops and racing out the door. Perhaps someday you’ll hear our stories, we made promises at the end of the workshop to one day share them as part of the DISC Storytelling Café.
But that’s not where this story ends. Each of us had our own laundry lists of take-aways. On one end, were very practical things like the exercises, or the fact that other people want to do the same thing. Veronique was especially excited about the possibilities for future practice together. “There is a community of people who are doing the same work that I can connect to, and that this community is right here in my city!”
We each also took away something more philosophical about the craft. “Mastering the art of storytelling is about learning skills and above all being wholeheartedly involved in telling the story,” Stephanie wrote after the workshop. She was keen to note Terra’s trademark teaching style was an essential component of the weekend. “The sharpness in listening and looking at our work and how we can improve, but at the same time also teaching us to take it with a pinch of salt, not to take things so seriously.”
As for me…well that all comes back to the beginning…with the story that I picked.
It wasn’t the story I had in mind, and it wasn’t even remotely close to any of the stories I’d brought in my back pocket with hopes of polishing. I didn’t even get to any of them, because the experience sent me down an entirely different path. I spent most of the two days following Terra’s guidance towards what the story means to me. How it parallels my own story so close in some ways and differs so far in others. It left me wandering over my recollections about past decisions and fantasising about the future when we see each other again. The whole workshop left me in a pensive state for several days, a sure sign for someone like me it was worth the trip.
When Terra asked me to describe the course, that’s the place I went back to. In a sense, I can see clear now, how we all are just beginners in this very big story. For me, the weekend, under any name, was a key part of that. But I would propose in this case a new name. Because for me, it’s not a workshop, a class, or a course. It’s a journey, one everyone should take once in their life.