by Emily Bouchard
In families, women play an important role as storytellers, and as educators of their children and grandchildren about the family’s legacy. Knowing how to discover, share, and preserve your family’s history is an essential component to your overall plan for future generations. As a trusted colleague, Amanda Weitman, from Wells Fargo Private Bank puts it: “What you’ve learned is as important as what you’ve earned, and your wealth planning should include consideration of all of your assets”, especially the intangible ones.
During a recent presentation to ten women, we started out by asking them to think back to their grandparents and what their names were. We then had them think further back to their great grandparents and asked how many women there could give the full names and details about the lives of these eight people. Only two of the women could recall full names, and even then, those names were only for two of their great grandparents. This is very typical – and completely avoidable. Our legacies live on long after our names, in the lives and in the stories in the family. The best way to have our lives matter is through the use of stories.
Kristi Hedges wrote in Forbes that “Stories grab us. They take us in, transport us, and allow us to live vicariously and visually through another’s experience…[and]…shared stories accelerate interpersonal connection. “
Storytelling connects loved ones to the emotions and the worldview that shaped the values that are most important in your family’s history, and that you want future generations to draw upon as they make important decisions. According to a website aimed at supporting leaders in getting their message out and heard, “Emotions inform us of what we value in ourselves, in others, and in the world, and enable us to express the motivational content of our values to others. In other words, because we experience values emotionally, they are what actually move us to act; it is not just the idea that we ought to act. Because stories allow us to express our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others too.” (Resource: http://workshops.350.org/toolkit/story/)
Capturing Your Stories
At Wealth Legacy Group, we specialize in capturing legacies for families and for organizations in a way that honors the past, celebrates the present, and furthers the vision for future generations. We work collaboratively with clients and their advisors to bring a depth of context and relevance to our work through interviews, trained analyses, and historical referencing.
When working on legacy projects, our purpose is to capture and honor the intangible aspects of a life well lived, including accomplishments, challenges, and nuances of decision-making at significant choice points. Our goal is to capture and contextualize the underlying core values that are highlighted in stories, words, actions, and pictures. We bring them to life to maximize the likelihood of those values providing guidance and direction for current and future generations of leaders in the family and/or organization.
How to Capture Stories
Seven-year-old Sarah watched her mother prepare a roast for their family’s Shabbat dinner. She became curious about why her mother cut off the end of the roast before putting it in the pan. Her mother explained “that’s how my mother always did it.”
So Sarah went over to where her grandmother was playing with her little brother and asked her, “Grandma, how come you cut the end of the roast before putting it in the pan?” and her grandmother smiled and said, that’s how my mother always did it.
Sarah then went to where her great grandmother was sitting quietly watching the family gathering and asked her “Little bubbe, why do you cut the end off a roast before putting it in the pan?” The eighty-two year old woman smiled as she answered with her thick Russian accent, “because when we came to United States we had nothing and we all lived together in a tiny apartment with the smallest oven you ever saw. The pan we used was tiny and no whole roast could fit in it!”
When working with families on the concept of storytelling, they find this apocryphal anecdote helpful to get the ball rolling. It inspires them to include multi-generations, and to be curious about practices, idioms, and experiences that are so often expressed and copied without understanding the context behind them.
Examples of Family Rituals that Incorporate Storytelling
Annual Reunion: I’ve been told in the past to use personal stories more generally – I’m wanting to step out more fully and openly about what’s my family stories vs. client stories:
I’ve experienced the power of storytelling in my own family. We had some challenges with blended family dynamics and living far from one another. My stepmother and father took the power of storytelling to heart and made it a ritual at our family’s annual reunion. Every year the whole family gathers together during Thanksgiving, and everyone now knows in advance that there will be storytelling time between the main meal and dessert. The only guidelines are that the stories be relevant to the person’s life who is presenting and that they share what the story means to them.
Over the years, we have learned about a cousin’s trip to India, another cousin’s climb up Kilimanjaro with her father, and an uncle’s role on the medical team that cared for president Reagan when he was shot.
As a result of this annual tradition, our blended family became much more cohesive and connected, and our conversations became more rich and satisfying, as we discovered shared values, and learned more about each other.
Multimedia Story Project: In another client family, a mother wanted to bridge the gap between the younger folks who seemed to always be on their phones and ipads and the older generation who were unable to connect easily with their grand (and great grand) children. With our support and coaching, she approached the teens as leaders of their generation and asked them to research and determine the best ways to record the stories and memories from their grandparents and great grandparents at their next family function. She specifically requested both video, audio, and photos, and whatever else they discovered.
The teens worked with a facilitator to take on the challenge and got their younger siblings and cousins involved. They came to the next reunion prepared to interview their elders, with the goal of creating a multi-media presentation for the whole family at the end of the event. They used simple apps on their phones, with tripods for setting up the video, and high quality microphones they researched and tested beforehand, and they worked with the matriarch who set this in motion to come up with questions and prompts that would capture the kinds of memories that would be cherished for generations to come. One of the younger cousins was an aspiring photographer and took beautiful still shots of their elders with the younger interviewers to add to the presentation.
As a result of this project, not only did the family end up with archived materials about how their family business was started, what were the biggest challenges and set backs, and what were the accomplishments their elders were most proud of; they ALSO empowered their rising generation to work together, produce a result, build leadership abilities, and make decisions together, all while learning new technologies and how to have them all interface with each other. The end result was more than powerful storytelling, as this family laid some important foundation of values and empowerment for the future of the family’s legacy and impact.
Storytelling Tips to Get You Started
During our lifetimes, we have a number of ways in which we can capture our own stories, and also recreate the stories from our ancestors, both those we have met, and those we never knew.
1. Stories from Your Ancestors We are fortunate to live in an era where accessing data and dates, and memorabilia has never been easier. Familytree Magazine (http:// www.familytreemagazine.com/article/25-bestgenealogy-websites-for-beginners) offers their top 25 sites for beginners in family genealogy (be forewarned as this expedition into the past can be addictive). If you find yourself wanting to go back in time in this way, we recommend taking on the approach of an archeologist or sociologist, where each piece of evidence gives you clues and insights, and where there will be lots of dead-ends and minutia to sift through to get to the real gems (which can be frustrating at times). Some women hire historians who can do the more mundane research and add rich materials to the backstory they want to tell.
5. Telling Your Own story We all have stories that have significant meaning for us. You have stories about why you chose to go in one direction vs. another. You have stories about particular events that had a dramatic impact on who you are. You have stories about your childhood and your parents that share volumes about your family values and the legacy of your parents, and their parents as well. Sharing these stories in compelling and engaging ways, while ALSO sharing why the story matters to you, is a great gift to give to your family. One of the best resources for excellent storytelling is the Moth Radio Hour and they give great tips on what to do and what not to do for people who want to tell a story on their show: https://themoth.org/ share-your-story/storytelling-tips-tricks
You can also find great tips online for how to tell and share compelling stories. Kristi Hedges’s article in Forbes on “How to Tell a Good Story” has some excellent recommendations. http://www.forbes. com/sites/work-in-progress/2013/12/11/howto-tell-a-good-story/#68bfd5335dae
3. Some Resources to Get Your Family Stories Flowing The organization 21/64 http://2164.net/ has some wonderful resources including cards with prompts to get you asking questions of each other – some with words, others with pictures. We highly recommend these to mothers and grandmothers looking for fun and creative ways to capture family legacy through stories.
Storytelling is for Everyone
Consider for a moment your favorite family story and what makes it so meaningful for you. Now, think of a family story that you want to know more about. I invite you to use some of the ideas in this article to take one small action towards developing one of those stories more fully so that they can be passed along with your values for generations to come.
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Emily Bouchard has worked with wealthy families and couples since 2004 and has facilitated over 130 family meetings. Trained as a social worker, she is passionate about doing what she can to strengthen family relationships and decrease unnecessary suffering and heartache. A leading expert in the field, Emily has been featured on numerous TV and Radio shows including The Today Show and NPR, and has been quoted in print around the world, in publications such as Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. To learn more, visit www.wealthlegacygroup.net