learning Stories are increasingly being used in business to engage the audience and add context and interest to a business lesson or best practice. Some of these are even described as ‘war stories ‘. Stories have always been told to children as a means of soft-pedaling a moral. And many self-help groups use members’ stories to encourage and warn others. What is a ‘story’ and why are they so powerful?

In his CBC Massey Lecture in 1999, The Triumph of Narrative , Robert Fulford has this to say:

A story is a linear account of real or fictitious events to explain, teach or entertain. It usually has these attributes:

  • meaning and value to the listener/reader
  • an organized explanation and resolution, often with a lesson, a reversal or turn of fortune, and suspense
  • evokes recognition in the listener/reader
  • its own voice, mood and point of view

We have a basic human need to tell our story to negotiate our sense of self with others, and make enduring order, sense and heightened value to our lives.

Stories and narratives mimic reality, unlike analytical or critical prose.

In a recent post I related a children’s story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon , which is a lesson on the dangers of denial and procrastination. If you read the comments to this post you can see how each listener, each reader, internalizes the story through his or her own mental model of reality, accepts and takes ownership of the story in their own personal context of what it means, or, if it lacks “meaning and value” to them, blows it off as a bad story.

In The Springboard, the World Bank’s Steve Denning claims to have increased the visibility of knowledge management in his organization from a “strange concept” to a “key strategic priority”, simply by telling “springboard” stories. I described in an earlier post how stories can cause people to accept as ‘true’ ideas and information that they would not normally accept from an untrusted (but not distrusted) source. How does this happen? How can we be subtly manipulated into accepting, acceding to, a message from a stranger when it’s in story form, but not when it’s in analytical form? If Jack Kent, or any of the retellers of the “dragon” story had instead written a persuasive essay on the dangers of denial and procrastination, perhaps drawing on historical examples, would they have had less effect?

I think the answer is yes, and the reason lies in Fulford’s realization that stories mimic reality while analytical essays explain reality . They are appealing to a different part of the brain. Like a rich drama that you can actually feel a part of, stories make the experience your own. Your relate to them personally, viscerally, and they become ‘true’ for you without having to face the analytical and cognitive obstacles that critical arguments must navigate. Here’s Denning explaining how this happens, with a real-life example:

When readers follow a story…they journey, virtually, with the story-teller into a different world…Readers do not shut off their consciousness and turn on the story at will. Their minds are incapable of being so silent or submissive. Their own threshold consciousness continues, but it is pushed into the background by the more insistent and seductive suggestions of the storyteller. Contrast these two paragraphs, each designed to convey the value propositions of knowledge management to an unaware, perhaps skeptical, audience of executives:

  1. Knowledge Management caters to the critical issues of organizational adaptation, survival and competence in face of increasingly discontinuous change. Essentially, it embodies organizational processes that seek synergistic combination of information processing capacity of information technologies, and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings.
  2. In June 1995, a health worker in Kamana, Zambia, logged on to the CDC website in Atlanta and got the answer, posted by an unknown associate in Indonesia, to a question on how to treat malaria.

Even if the audience has no experience in health care, they immediately relate better to the second argument, even though it is less comprehensive an explanation of the benefits of knowledge management. The story engages them in ways the factual argument cannot. Denning has the following hints on how to exploit the subliminal advantage of stories over logical argument in bringing about organizational and social change:

  • Deliberately tell the story in such a way as to allow some mental space for the listeners to forge their own thoughts, with the explicit objective of having the listeners invent analogous stories of their own, in parallel to the story-teller’s explicit story.
  • Many listeners are facing the dilemma of getting speedy answers to unexpected problems within tight deadlines. As storyteller your objective is to stimulate listeners to generate a stream of reflection along the following lines: “Suppose I was [in the position of the empathetic protagonist in the story]. I could accomplish [x ]. I could achieve [these objectives]. I would solve [these problems].” Once you have managed to stimulate these blurry subthreshold murmurings into existence, the seeds of the idea [you are trying to advance] will have been successfully germinated. If these seeds can be germinated with further elements to excite your listeners’ imaginations, then the listeners can discover the idea in a way that makes it their own. What is more, the stories, because they are generated by the listeners themselves, will fit perfectly the listeners’ own context (mental models) and environment and problems. The vocabulary in which the subthreshold murmurings occur will be completely friendly and natural to the listeners, since it is they who created it.
  • The story must contain a protagonist with whom the audience can empathize, a daunting challenge to which the audience can relate at least by analogy, a surprise or element of strangeness that pre-empts the audience’s inclination to pre-judge the resolution, and plausibility when the real outcome is presented. Rehearsal is critical. For unresponsive audiences, sensitize them to the story’s urgency by starkly delineating the ongoing problem it suggests answers to. Keep the story brief and textureless, i.e. d’on’t fill in too many details – allow the audience to fill them in (unless they’re critical to the story). You can even embellish the story, or omit details that detract from your argument, as long as the result isn’t an egregious falsehood, and you’ll be forgiven the artistic license.  
  • And finally, practice, practice, practice. Storytelling is a performance art. The masters, like the African griot and the pre-written language storytellers of all human cultures, took millennia, generation to generation, to perfect the art.

Sounds like subversion to me. It also sounds like an essential tool for every organizational and social change agent. And for every parent. This is the third time I’ve dug out Denning’s book since I first bought it. This time I’m taking it to heart.

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  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveAs boy chorister I spent a lot of time in church as a boy. So while I am not a Christian the bible is a huge part of my world view. Everytime someone asks Jesus to expound on a point of dogma – he replies with a story. I thnk that you are right on. I suspect that part of being human is that we are tuned for story. If we can embed an idea in story it will take.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmm… I wonder if that’s why Daniel Quinn (until Beyond Civilization anyway) wrote down his radical ideas as stories instad of essays.

  3. Rayne says:

    Look at the relative ease with which urban legends spread. Stories, all of them, but tall tales and fibs. The question is: how does one seed knowledge to duplicate the spread of an urban legend?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Aha, Rayne, coming up later today, the answer to that question: The Tipping Point. You must be reading my mind–I’ve got the post on this half-finished and will complete it during today’s lunch break.

  5. The Raven says:

    We English majors live and breathe this stuff. But I still find it very, very hard to believe that any of this isn’t common, universally understood knowledge. Talking about the role and functions of “stories” is like discussing the importance of light: “Light lets us see things. Without light, we’d be in the dark…” Dave, please tell me that this post is some kind of weird allegory or satire that I’m missing. But if it isn’t, then kudos to you for mentioning something very important and utterly true.By the way, are you coming around to placing a bit more value on the power of psychological insight on human behavior? The more I read of your work, the more I feel that you’re akin to an astronomer with an aversion to physics: Much of what you write is purely within the domain of psychology and is well-informed by it. Regards as ever, – R.

  6. anonymous says:

    Hi Raven, I graduated an English major and went on to work for a decade in corporate and government strategy. The answer to your question is another story – The Emperor’s New Clothes. We don’t always see the obvious.

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