The Power, and Weakness, of Stories

dragonWe had some friends over for dinner last night, and one couple brought their 12-year-old daughter and her friend. Over dinner I listened to the two girls recounting recent episodes of the TV program Ghost Whisperer. At first I intervened only to ask if they were aware that the recurring theme of the show was giving closure to those suffering from grief over the loss of a loved one (and to some extent, closure to those who died suddenly with ‘unfinished business’). They didn’t seem too interested in this information. As one of the girls related another plotline from the TV series, I told them that it sounded similar to the children’s story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon*. I told them this story, rather badly I thought, but they listened attentively (much more attentively than they did to my point about closure). I wondered if, had I told them my own personal story about closure, they would have been both more interested and more understanding.

I concluded that that story was too ‘old’ for them, and instead transitioned from the dragon story to its predecessor, the ancient HC Andersen story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Once again, I was amazed at their attentiveness, as this time I drew out the story a bit. When I finished, they expressed no interest in the common tie-in or moral of the two stories but instead said to me:

Tell us another story.

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know any more stories. I didn’t know how to tell stories (despite having taken a course in it by Dave Snowden and having read Steve Denning’s book on the subject The Springboard).

I had been told, and thought, that the power of stories lay in the personal joy of discovering and learning their meaning. In fact, I had just delivered a presentation at KMWorld that argued that stories add meaning and value to information by adding context and allowing people to become engaged by filling in the details from their own experience and ‘making the story their own’. Yet here the pleasure of listening to stories seemed to lay in just listening and imagining and visualizing the events and details of the stories themselves, and their lessons and moral were unimportant. Was this unique to children, or did adults also not care about what stories meant, as long as they found them entertaining?

I thought back to a memorable story Dave Snowden had recounted at KMWorld, about his experience walking unawares at night through an extremely dangerous part of New York City after attending the opera in a tuxedo, having been informed by Google Maps that this was the fastest route to make his connection to his next scheduled appointment. The message, which Dave stated explicitly near the end of the story, was that Google Maps software was unable to manage the complex arc of information that would have allowed it to suggest a better (safer but slower) route. But what delighted the audience (me included) was the image of Dave being stopped, scolded and escorted to safety by the police. I could even imagine listeners retelling the story, perhaps with embellishments or even in the first person, appropriating the story as their own, and omitting the message or even the reference to Google Maps. Would the omission of the lesson about complexity diminish the story’s power and value? Would this omission actually enrich the story, by making it accessible to people who didn’t care about complexity or know what Google Maps was? Is the truth, including essential information and learnings, often and easily sacrificed in the interest of making a story more entertaining?

When we tell stories, are we in fact giving them away? Can we presume to trust that what we consider their essential details and veracity will be retained in their retelling, or do we immediately give up all rights to such presumption, much as we do when we gift anything else, like a piece of jewelry or a book? Even if we authored that book?

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. If that’s the case, when we ‘give away’ stories, are we giving away a part of ourselves? Do we dare, then, get attached to our stories? Do we owe it, to the truth, to learn to tell true stories carefully, memorably, completely, so that those who ‘take them’ from us will be more inclined to recall and retell the truth when they pass them on?

Conversation has two purposes — to inform or to entertain. There are ways to inform without entertaining (I’m reasonably good at this — in presentations and dialogues I give people a lot of ideas, links, reading suggestions and other ‘useful’ stuff). There are ways to entertain without informing (ask a stand-up comedian how — I’m terrible at this). Stories allow you to do both, separately or at the same time. But they run the risk that the information will be lost in the entertainment.

I’ve resolved, once again, more than ever, to learn to be a better story-teller, mostly by practicing.

But I’m asking myself why. Do I want to tell better stories to convey information better, with more context, more memorably? Or do I want to tell better stories to be more entertaining, more popular, even if it may mean being less informative?

* In the business world, the metaphor substitutes an elephant (‘in the room’) for the dragon.

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24 Responses to The Power, and Weakness, of Stories

  1. Tovarich says:

    Glad you’re back… I thought of this quote regarding today’s very good post and believe it to be true not just for compaines, but also true for communities and families…

  2. “Do I want to tell better stories to convey information better, with more context, more memorably? Or do I want to tell better stories to be more entertaining, more popular, even if it may mean being less informative?”I don’t know the answers to these questions, but these folks seem to be working right in middle of it:

  3. MLU says:

    I would rather think the purpose of conversation is to communicate, to think together, to learn not just what someone knows but also who he or she is. We can only know who someone is by knowing the stories–what was faced, how it was understood, what was attempted, how it turned out, and what the person made of the consequences.Stories work, I think, because they encode reality in ways we are made to understand. They are about intentionality, judgment, and the mysterious and complex ways things really do happen. The central metaphor of most stories is that of a character immersed in time, which is the truest version of how we experience life.At our best, we tell stories to record how things really are, I think. A chief characteristic of modernity is that we live amid competing narratives. Many of us can’t see many of the stories that are unfolding, in somewhat the way a chimpanzee cannot watch a baseball game, though it can see the runners, the fielders, the socreboard and the crowd. It can’t see the story.Nevertheless, the best story will win.

  4. Dave – I just came out of a storytelling workshop with a master teller. Ie the arts side, not the business side. Though I work as a consultant/facilitator in organizations and with senior levels of leadership ‘engaging’ people in change and so forth, among other things, I am also a storyteller. Learning the art and practice of telling. And conversation and dialogue are two other ‘arts’ close to my heart. These human communication media I think are deeply critical to the health of our human community- remembering how to do what we know/knew.I think and speak and listen to lots of things around story and conversation, and perhaps you are open to a conversation on them one day? For me, I found this particular article quite frustrating and narrow around conceptions of conversation and story. I think conversation and story are more than to transfer information/knowledge and entertain. Though they are useful and great for both of these. For one, both conversation and story serve to connect us – as individuals, as groups, as communities…indeed, story itself can create a community of listener and teller. If you have ever been captivated/captured in a live telling there is almost a sphere that occurs…particularly if the story occurs in a circle…And stories have the power to bridge worlds and open new ones. I know that can sound metaphysical but in sharing stories it isn’t simply about meaning, or information, there is also something profoundly generative – something new occuring in the shared space between the listener and the person speaking. Something new literally happens. And I think this can happen inside of us too as we listen. Huge shifts can happen…mentally, and I believe physically – though I also believe that we are made of stories…that indeed we house the stories of those before us in our DNA etc… I also think a lot about ‘story and conversational space’. Though invisible there are certain things that seem to happen with these two things that I have trouble putting into concrete words…but I do believe that stories and conversations don’t only serve to give context, they are context themselves. For me the reason I want to be a better teller is because first and foremost it feels great to tell and create a space with others…and share something that is so rich it can be passed on. Truely shared. The beauty of stories is that good ones can be passed on and get better / hold their ‘truth’ / kernel of knowledge with many retellings…and they connect us to a commmuity of all the listeners and charaters and tellers who ever were…Thanks for the opportunity to brain-dump – I guess I just get so happy that people are talking about story and somewhat frustrated that we have this need to limit story and conversation so…At heart, I think, the answer to my “why” is, so I can be a better human…and to echo a friend, I am better human amongst other humans. A great conversation and story is one of the best ways I know to be a great human, and be nourished in ‘the sphere of the between’ [martin buber’s term, not mine]

  5. David Zinger says:

    Hi Dave,I appreciated your post on story telling. I think the ability to find the story out of experiences is so powerful. We can change the past…not the facts but the stories and what we learn. Your post is much more than the same old story and I look forward to reading future posts.David

  6. Stories will always and ever approximate the world. They are more or less true (or false). This is what William Faulkner was averring to when he made the distinction between facts and the truth. We musn’t mistake one for the other. This is the problem fundamentalists of all stripes are fearful of admitting: the stories are bound to change and therefore bound only to tell part of the truth. If your story is “absolutely true”, you are setting yourself up for grave error eventually. Even hammers break and our most powerful stories end up no longer of service. We are more than our stories and that is why they keep changing. Who is to say that entertainment is not part of what makes the story true. Comedy certainly thrives on this notion of authority deprecating itself. The mind thinks metaphorically. Rather the mind metaphorizes and we just happen to call it thinking. The map ain’t the territory and the stories ain’t the truth. I am sorry to wax wrothful here because I am an admirer of your story and even been tempted to change my story by becoming a Canadian citizen. Keep on telling your story while at the same time being completely aware that you are also straying, necessarily and in part, from the truth. Don’t blame the kids, don’t blame yourself, just keep telling the best stories you can.

  7. dataguy says:

    “entertain without informing” My gut tells me that this is not possible. It may be “mind-less entertainment” but there is always plenty to be learned; it’s up to the individual if their brain is engaged or not.Very glad your back…

  8. Arie says:

    “When we tell stories, are we in fact giving them away?”1) There is a device in playwriting, where the actors change on stage and the sets are changed without the curtain falling. The point is to remind the audience that this story is *about* something, and not to get so lost in the telling as to lose the moral. But, as you alluded to, this isn’t a very popular technique. People like being lost in the story. 2) In designing something (an object, a story) the creator puts all of his knowledge into the object, including the knowledge of how to use that very object. He then hands it off to the user, sight unseen. The ‘instruction manual’ is a bogus attempt to keep control of the user’s experience with that object. But a well designed thing needs no user manual. (I think that Donald Norman talks about this in his “Design of Everyday Objects”)

  9. Dave – just discovered your site and am very impressed. I just finished teaching a master’s level course in project management, and the inevitable question about skills of a good project manager came up. One of the skills I mentioned was Story Telling. This drew questions and even some criticism. “Listen,” I said, “if you are going to be spending 70-90% of your time communicating with stakeholders, you’d better make sure it’s quality communication.” I went further to explain that story telling helps in presenting, writing status reports, creating excellent requirements specifications, and handling issues… all aspects of the project life cycle can be communicated through stories.Keep up the great work with the thought-provoking posts.

  10. Your rest has served you (and us) well :-)I think the strength of stories is that they slip that info in so unobtrusively (when told well, of course). I agree with the commenter who posited that it is impossible to entertain w/o imparting *some* information: it’s the how much or what kind or quality of that varies. The best standups (Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor) or film artists or writers (or communicatrices!) do both. That’s the gold standard, as far as I’m concerned.This is unsolicited, I realize, but if you’re really looking for practice, I’d suggest checking out Toastmasters. Quality varies widely by club, but if you can find the right one, you will be in storytelling-hog-heaven. I love my club, and have gotten better by leaps and bounds in the mere three months I”ve been a member.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    This will be my chronicle of my HP repair experience (the laptop processor is working fine but there’s a loose connection or short between the CPU and the monitor, so you have to twist and hold the monitor to a certain angle to see anything); you won’t see another blog post until this chronicle is finished:Friday Nov. 3: Phoned HP help line, got a very friendly fellow with a British/East Indian accent. Wasn’t on hold long. He told me (by looking up the s/n) my PC was past warranty (registered as sold in Sept/05, though I bought it Jan.25/06 — well-documented on my blog — looks like the vendor who sold it to me originally bought it for their own use and then decided to resell it as new). He gave me another number to call to argue with the HP warranty folks. Instead, I asked for the local Toronto-area service depot. He gave it to me. I phoned them, and the woman said to bring in the PC along with proof of purchase and they would pursue it with HP but that might take another day. They’re closed weekends.Monday, Nov. 6: Took my PC to the prescribed 3rd-party service depot, along with my proof-of-purchase. I went to the front door and they sent me to the back (apparently few people actually bring in their own machines for repair). The people in the back sent me back to the front, for the same reason. Finally a very friendly woman with a British/East Indian accent came through the security door with a form. She said that if HP didn’t accept the proof-of-purchase I’d have to pay and pursue it with the retailer who sold it to me. She wouldn’t take the PC without a credit card. I had no choice. She said there were no service people in right now but they would look at it tomorrow and call HP to get a tracking number, and call me with an estimate of time and if applicable cost.I met an executive from HP in San Jose, but I promised myself and him that I wouldn’t get him to intervene unless I had to. I want to experience this as the average mistreated and abused consumer. So far so good. Next installment tomorrow.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Tovarich: Great quote. Harold: The Anecdote guys are really sharp — Snowden has a lot of time for them (I had breakfast with him in San Jose — more on that later). MLU: Absolutely — except that stories also reflect the emotion of events. I suspect that a chimp, given time, would grasp the patterns of a baseball game, and appreciate it intellectually, but probably not appreciate it emotionally — but then neither do I ;-)Natalie: I’d love to have a conversation about this some time (after my PC is fixed). I don’t think we disagree — I’m just saying it more prosaically. Stories are important to who we are, even if many won’t go as far as Thomas King and say they are all we are. Information-sharing and entertaining is, I think, lowest common denominator, why we connect to other people, largely through stories. I’ve learned that much of the communication that we think actually occurs is only in our own minds, and is largely illusory — though that doesn’t make it any less important.David, Terry, Dataguy, Timothy: Agreed, and thanks.Arie: Great point. A well-designed thing needs no user manual. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be used in unintended ways.Communicatrix: I’ve often thought of trying toastmasters — maybe I’ll add it to my self-experimentation list (it should be stress-relieving). I guess what got me going on non-informative entertainment was several of the presentations in San Jose which were quite entertaining but imparted no new knowledge. Like empty calories, or, as Shakespeare put it, it requires “more matter and less art”. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing why my info-packed but not-very-entertaining presentations seem to be quite popular with info-thirsty audiences.

  13. Sara says:

    I really enjoyed this post and the questions you raise. Like dataguy, I don’t believe that any story is “just entertaining.” The act of storytelling has inherent value even if the “moral” or the “point” of the story isn’t realized immediately or analyzed or even included. Stories are living things and they evolve and move out in the world just like we do, because, of course, we are stories. And they work in our lives and our consciousness on even spiritual levels. I’m probably not articulating how I feel about it very well, but I enjoyed the thoughts provoked by your questions. :)

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Second installment of my HP repair experience:Tuesday Nov.7: Called today. The person in tech services who answered knew who I was without a ‘case #’. She gave me my assigned ‘case #’, and told me the proof-of-purchase had been faxed to HP for warranty payment approval, and that they were waiting for the tech’s assessment of the problem and estimate of time/cost of repairs. That’s all they could tell me. They told me they’d e-mail me when they knew more. Good thing I have webmail. This blog will be silent a couple more days anyway, I’m guessing. Stay tuned.

  15. Hi DaveGood luck on the computer – on the story front – I wonder if Story is power neutral? If I tell you what to do, I am assuming power over you. If I tell you a story it is neutral – it like Dave Snowden may be with me in the silly position which makes it ever more acceptable. Also does story allow for much more complexity – I think when we hear a story we fill in the blanks with out own experience and hence make the underlying idea our own???Best wishes from EnglandRob

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Third installment of my HP repair experience:Day 4: Thursday Nov.9: Called twice today. As of 16:30 today, 3.5 working days after I hand-delivered it to the service depot, the tech guy at Millennium Data hasn’t even looked at my computer yet. He’s supposed to look at it tomorrow and call me with a diagnosis. And all that’s wrong with it is a loose connection. *sigh* This is why I’m doing all the stress-management activities, I guess. Looks like another weekend with no ability to post to my blog.

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    Fourth installment of my HP repair experience:Day 5: Friday Nov.9: The tech has ordered a whole new LCD panel for my laptop, which ‘should’ be in on Monday. No objection from HP to it being covered by warranty — yet. Keep your fingers crossed; this blog could be back in business by Tuesday.

  18. I grew up with storytellers, and I think it’s more important to share our stories with others than to share information. Our stories deepen our understanding of each other and of life. We dream in story, so that’s clearly a preferred format for our minds. I

  19. Ria Baeck says:

    A good book about stories and what they can mean: Storycatcher by Christina Baldwin; New World Library.

  20. Carroll says:

    Another fascinating post, Dave. Quite a good one to leave hanging for us to digest while you fret through your computer hassles. Rob Paterson’s “power neutral” comment above sparked a memory for me (Techies, feel free to turn your attention elsewhere for a moment — this one’s for the moms and dads out there) When our boys were young and I had a curiosity about what they were thinking on an important subject, or when I had a piece of maternal “wisdom” I wished to convey, invariably I would resort to a “story”. Either a completely fabricated event that had “happened to a friend of mine with a kid about your age who goes to a different school”, or a riff on something in the news. As long as it wasn’t personal, as in related to them (my kids) directly (perish the thought that they would ever discuss personal stuff with their mom, after all!) I was usually able to elicit and/or convey quite a good bit of information on those rides back and forth to school during which they were a captive audience. I’m not sure they ever figured out what I was doing back then, but I guess now that I’ve confessed my subterfuge to the whole darn internet, it’s only a matter of time!

  21. Jerry Kolber says:

    Dave,You raise an interesting question at the end of this excellent article – do you want to tell stories to better convey meaning, or do you want to tell stories to be more popular/entertaining.I would suggest (and here I am coming from the perspective of someone who tells stories for a living as a producer of TV shows) that you are a tiny step away from understanding exactly why you want to tell stories better. The answer is BOTH to entertain AND to convey meaning.Let me put this another way – if you aren’t engaging your listener (or put another way, being entertaining or popular) it’s very difficult to get people to understand what you are talking about. Knowing how to craft a great story is a precursor to being able to convey meaning to a wide range of people.I just wrote an article about basic story construction over at (check out “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn”). The fact that you are aware as you are of the need to balance meaning and entertainment suggests to me that you probably already are a good storyteller.Jerry

  22. evenstar says:

    Synchronicity! Gotta love it! Stimulating post Dave – I like your wondering about giving a part of ourselves away when sharing a story. I know nothing about writing, having never studied literature or creative writing, but I was wondering the same thing when I posted this story…’d appreciate your thoughts if you have the time…(All the best with the ‘puter) :)

  23. evenstar says:

    Synchronicity! Gotta love it! Stimulating post Dave – I like your wondering about giving a part of ourselves away when sharing a story. I know nothing about writing, having never studied literature or creative writing, but I was wondering the same thing when I posted this story…(OK – seems I can’t post a link, so please email me if you’re interested)I’d appreciate your thoughts if you have the time…(All the best with the ‘puter) :)

  24. steve black says:

    I’m sure many (all?) of your readers would agree that we read your site because of the stories you write and the bit of your self that you are giving away.Do these HP techs know that they are delaying the saviour of the world?!!! (the website not you dave)

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