STORYTELLING IN BUSINESS
The Authentic and Fluent Organization
By Janis Forman
Stanford University Press
Copyright © 2013 Janis Forman
All right reserved.
WHY EXPLORE STORYTELLING IN BUSINESS?
"Meet the Press" and tell them your story. NANA BETTY
Storytelling can be a personal inheritance, a lifelong and life-sustaining habit of mind, as well as an organizational inheritance, a management tool that helps businesses develop and even thrive. When my maternal grandmother, Nana Betty, encouraged my sister and me as children to tell stories about ourselves to her neighbors"the press"whom we encountered on our walks to the beach, she was building our self-confidence in talking to strangers and in finding our place in her small Manhattan Beach (New York) community. Similarly, organizations, like those featured in this book, can encourage storytelling for good purposes, such as making sense of their strategy, communicating it, and developing or strengthening culture and brand. These uses of storytelling generate positive consequences that can have a sustained and significant impact on an organization.
This book is written for business professionals who want to know more about the power of storytelling, how it has functioned successfully in companies, and how, in practical terms, it can help achieve an organization's and a professional's goals.
THE VITALITY OF STORIES
As the "Nana Betty" story illustrates, storytelling may have powerful roots in childhood. Novelist and screenplay writer Larry McMurtry reflects:
If, for example, you dare to interrupt a five-year-old's thirty-ninth viewing of "The Lion King" in order to find out a basketball score, they will, once they regain control of the remote, immediately rewind the film to the point of interruption, so as not to miss the smallest element of the story. Watching the avidity with which the very young absorb stories ... leaves one no grounds for pessimism about the survival of narrative itself. The human appetite for it is too strong.
This child's play of "story watching" is closely akin to the serious play of story creation by novelists and nonfiction writers like McMurtry, and filmmakers like the Disney studio, producer of The Lion King.
Professional storytellers like McMurtry express our intuitive understanding that people are hardwired for stories. The familiar beginning and ending of fairy tales"Once upon a time ... and they lived happily ever after"act as verbal bookends, marking a child's grasp of how things work (or ought to work), a predictability that can produce emotional reassurance and pleasure with repeated telling of the same story or with repetition of the familiar elements of story applied to a new topic. As the performance of a gifted storyteller, these tales not only compel a child's rapt attention and adamant demand to "play it again" but also create an intimate link between the listener and the teller of the tale, often a trusted parent or teacher. From early childhood on, the best stories, replete with memorable details, make sense of apparently disconnected facts and experiences, arranging them in a sequence that feels inevitable, and take us on a journey led by the teller of the tale, who, having earned our confidence, orchestrates it all.
The livelihood of writers and the fortunes of filmmakers depend on their ability to craft stories, rich in plot and detail, that touch audiences emotionally, from young children to the elders of a society. McMurtry grew up in rural west Texas among storytellers. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, he reflects on the art of storytelling, weaving into his autobiography an essay on this art by the early-twentieth-century European intellectual Walter Benjamin. McMurtry reminisces about the roots of his writing life in a small town where old men would sit around at the corner store and while away the time by whittling. As they carved wood into rough shapes, an activity that kept their hands busy and their ears alert, they would take turns telling and listening to each other's stories. "Whittling cowboys," McMurtry reflects, are "perfect receptacles for stories." McMurtry's west Texas town was a close-knit community of shared stories, values, and "tribal" memory.
Even though this context for stories has vanished, McMurtry argues, stories have vitality and a sustaining presence: "Watching the avidity with which the young absorb stories ... leaves one no grounds for pessimism about the survival of narrative itself." And even though we are far removed from the leisurely pace and idyllic setting for the stories he portrays, most of us are nonetheless drawn to them despiteor perhaps because ofthe pressured busyness of our organizational and private lives and by our hunger for emotional engagement in our work. As I will argue, it is now time for business to turn to narrative with greater confidence and respect for its capabilities.
WHY TURN TO STORYTELLING IN BUSINESS NOW?
Organizational life is highly pressured. We multitask, we text-message, we surf the Web, we tweet, and we check Facebook in settings, virtual or real, that are galaxies removed from the pastoral idyll of McMurtry's whittling old men: "The decline of whittling," McMurtry explains in an elegiac passage of his autobiography, "has clearly deprived storytellers of many willing listenersmost of the old men who filled the spittle and whittle benches outside the rural courthouses of my youth regaled themselves as they whittled with story after story."
Unlike McMurtry's rural storytellers, the businesspeople we want to influence are busy, harried, quick to calculate the dollar value of their time, bombarded by multiple messages from a dizzying number of communication channels, and likely to respond in haste and in kind to what comes their way. Moreover, as the Millennials who were raised with social network technology increasingly populate the ranks of management, much of business communication takes the form of instantaneous sound bites. Jim Reilly, former general manager of marketing plans and communications at IBM, acknowledges and laments this shift: "People want to knock things down to a bumper sticker. Everything is shorthand thinking. People need stimulation every twenty minutes. Today, instead of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln would have to say 'Read my lips. No slaves.'" Yet, despite, or because of, all this, a well-chosen, well-crafted story can get through to people.
How do stories reach beyond the pressure and noise to influence people in a sustained and powerful way? According to business communication expert Mary Lang of Comadrona Communications, stories succeed in getting through to people because "humans crave narrative and the use of story builds a narrative for topics that goes deeper and lives longer in a person's psyche than most any other form of communication." (The work of novelists and child psychologists supports her point as well.)
Reflecting on his daily routine as a busy executive, Bob Feldman, former senior corporate communication director at DreamWorks Animation and now principal of the strategic communications firm PulsePoint Group, explains the impact of stories in this way:
When I think about my day ... I get up, watch the Today Show, read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, go to work, listen to the radio, turn on CNN.com. During the day I am hit with thousands of messages. Am I going to take away three or four messages from a CEO about a company? It's a fallacy to think companies have an opportunity to deliver several messages. If they're lucky, I'll have one impression. So what's that single story a company has to tell that is relevant and memorable? Take the message and put it into a story for singularity, relevance, and memorability.
Amid the rush and intensity of data from multiple quarters, Feldman suggests (and some economists and historians also agree) that stories have sense-making capability. In the hands of a skilled storyteller who selects from bits of information to create a coherent, succinct message, a story can make a company's case compelling and memorable, especially when those on the receiving end are likely to suffer from what educator and essayist Sven Birkerts calls "attention deficit disorder." This is, according to Birkerts, a contemporary malaise ushered in by the decline in reading and reflection and characterized by a loss of focus or a "grazing mentality" that is the antithesis of thoughtful assessment.
Having the ability to make sense of things and to influence, stories are an inevitable expression and tool of leadership. "Stories are unavoidable if you're going to be a leader," advises Irv Miller, group VP of corporate communications at Toyota Motor Sales. "Every leader needs a vision, whether you're a leader of a trash brigade or a big company. You need to communicate where you're going. A person who's a good communicator has a grasp of storytelling. If you can't translate your passion, you're hard-pressed to be a good leader. No one followed a committee into battle." Some leaders have an easy grasp of storytelling. Betsy McLaughlin, CEO of Hot Topic, remarks on the capacity of stories in business to reach a diverse audience: "If I have a problem to solve, a big idea to get across, and I have to reach three people in the room with different backgrounds, I tell a story. Two weeks later I hear people retell the story."
In the highly contested arena known as organizational life, stories can help leadersand aspiring leadersto emerge from the conflict with a team of supporters. "Communication is a contact sport," asserts communication consultant Tom Pyden. "You have to do it, look forward to doing it, and do it as often as you can. Employees then run through walls for you." At a minimum, stories can be a survival tool for leaders. As Rob Lively, vice president of corporate government affairs at Schering-Plough, concludes, "Stories are the pivot point of falling on your face or making the game-winning shot. Take it seriously. The question is, Are you food or are you the head of the team?"
More and more, stories are important because people want interaction and engagement rather than being "broadcast" or lectured to. Especially with the growing presence of social network technology, employees and external stakeholders (for example, investors, customers, clients) want to be heardand at times have their stories told in their own voices: how I experienced driving my new BMW; what it's like to work on a Chevron oil drill platform in the Pacific; the meaning of the Johnson & Johnson Credo and its emphasis on serving mothers and children as it comes into play in my work as a salesperson, a researcher, or a senior manager.
In this new environment, businesses themselves need compelling and memorable stories at the enterprise level because people's trust in business is quite low. Bill Margaritis, corporate vice president of global communications and investor relations at FedEx, explains:
In today's world, people are more willing to trust other people than they are large institutions. Authentic stories, well told, remind stakeholders that good companies are the ones that value, celebrate, and empower their people. You've got to deconstruct the cold corporate edifice and focus on the individual building blocksthe people whose stories exemplify a company's culture and values. That's how you gain trust in this increasingly cynical world.
In a business environment where distractions and lack of trust dominate, stories can cut through the busyness to capture attention, engage and influence people, create meaning, exemplify values, and gain trust.
SUPPORT FOR STORYTELLING: A RALLY CRY FROM MULTIPLE QUARTERS
Professionals from a variety of disciplines have long recognized and voiced the importance of storytelling to their field. These include cognitive psychologists, neurologists, physicians, lawyers, city planners, economists, historians, literary critics, filmmakers, and, yes, professional storytellers; each group employs its unique perspectives in working with stories. Locating stories for business on this broader canvas sometimes yields unexpected insights into how stories for nonbusiness purposes are thought of, crafted, and usedand what may be the potential of storytelling for business.
Research by cognitive psychologists and neurologists confirms our intuition about the power of stories; scientific data substantiate the fundamental connection between being human and telling stories. Tracking the cognitive maturity of children from age two to seventeen, child development specialist Arthur Applebee shows how their growth is characterized by the increasingly more sophisticated stories they can understand and tell. The toddler responds to a simple tale, while the older child delights in creating and appreciating more complex stories characterized by multiple voices, characters, dialogue, and plot complications. Exploring a similar set of research questions, psychologist Jerome Bruner reflects on the language development of a precocious child, Emmy, who would express her half-thoughts in emerging stories she'd concoct to make sense of her world to herself as she prepared for bed: "The soliloquies were not just about the routines of the day; she seemed drawn to the unexpected, to things that had surprised her or caught her unprepared.... So intent was she on getting her stories right that we came to believe her progress in acquiring language was driven by some sort of narrative energy." In the related field of neurology, researchers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to do brain scans have located our storytelling comprehension in the prefrontal cortex of the brain where our working memory and, in turn, our ability to identify sequence and represent stories are lodged. James McGaugh, research professor in the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California at Irvine, who is an expert in brain functioning and memory, has been using MRIs and interview protocols to investigate individuals who have extraordinary powers of memory: "You can ask them what happened in their own lives or what was of significant public interest on a particular dateeven years agoand they'll remember the details, often telling them in a narrative. (We are finding that the organization of their brains is a little different, some regions smaller or larger, than the brains of others.) All of us make sense of our experiences through stories."
Some physician-educators also recognize the benefits of storytelling to the humanistic practice of medicine. Psychiatrist and educator Robert Coles has used "doctor stories," fiction written by famous authors who trained as physicians, for instance, Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, to teach students at Harvard Medical School to go beyond clinical diagnoses by listening fully to patients' stories as a way to connect emotionally with them and to interpret their life circumstances as they struggle with illness. Reflecting on the value ascribed to storytelling by his mentor in psychiatry, Coles notes: "He urged me to be a good listener in the special way a story requires: note the manner of presentation; the development of plot, character; the addition of new dramatic sequences; the emphasis accorded to one figure or another in the recital; and the degree of enthusiasm, of coherence, the narrator gives to his or her account."
Closely akin to the work of Bruner and Coles, graduate programs in the relatively new field known as "narrative medicine" help healthcare practitioners develop their storytelling capabilities. As the program at Columbia University describes, the premise for the study of narrative medicine is that "the care of the sick unfolds in stories. The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. Medicine practiced with narrative competence is a model for humane and effective medical practice." Rita Charon, a pioneer in the field and both a physician and educator, offers this poignant representative anecdote from her work that captures, in this first interview with a patient, the promise of narrative medicine:
As his new internist, I tell him, I have to learn as much as I can about his health. "Could you tell me whatever you think I should know about your situation?" I ask him. And then I do my best to not say a word, to not write in his medical chart, but to absorb all that the patient emits about himselfabout his life, his body, his fears, and his hopes. I listen not only for the content of his narrative but for its formits temporal course, its images, its associated subplots, its silences, where he chooses to begin in telling of himself, how he sequences symptoms with other life events. After a few minutes, the patient stops talking and begins to weep. I ask him why he cries. He says, "No one has ever let me do this before."
Excerpted from STORYTELLING IN BUSINESS by Janis Forman Copyright © 2013 by Janis Forman. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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