Emergic: Rajesh Jain's Blog

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Organisational Story-Telling

April 29th, 2004 · 12 Comments

Steve Neiderhauser points to an interview with Steven Denning. Excerpts:

People think in stories, talk in stories, communicate in stories, even dream in stories. If you want to understand what’s going on in an organization, you need to listen to the stories. Moreover, if you want to get anything done in an organization, you need to know how to use to story to move people.

A springboard story is a story that can communicate a complex idea and spring people into action? It has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding. It can enable listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context. It can enable them to grasp the idea as a whole not only very simply and quickly, but also in a non-threatening way. It works like a metaphor — you tell a story about the past where something has already happened and invite the audience to imagine a future where this isolated example happened much more widely.

There is a growing body of case studies, full of facts, about the impact of story. My book, The Springboard, on the World Bank is full of facts about what happened there. More work is under way. For skeptics who ask: why should I try what you recommend? my reply is: if you have something that’s working, and you’re able to persuade skeptical audiences of transformational ideas with what you’re already doing, then go ahead, be my guest, and use what’s working for you. I can make this offer without fear because the problem is that the traditional approaches actually don’t work at all, when you’re dealing with difficult skeptical audiences. Story works in the hard cases, when nothing else works.

People can’t absorb data because they don’t think in data. They think in stories. If you give people a story, then they can absorb the meaning of large amounts of data very rapidly.

When a speaker simply reads out abstract bullet points [from a Powerpoint presentation], as one hears so often, one doesn’t need to look at the audience to know that they’re not listening. When that happens, then you get the look that I depict here. If on the other hand, the speaker is thinking in stories, and talking in stories, and telling those stories with feeling and imagination, then PowerPoint images can support and underline the main elements of the story. Images can strongly reinforce the story. Amusing images, if well chosen, can be particularly effective in advancing the story.

The good news is however that we are all storytellers. We’ve simply been browbeaten into thinking that this is some kind of arcane skill that only a few people have. As Jerome Bruner has documented, we all do it spontaneously from the age of two onwards, and go on doing it throughout our lives. When we get into a formal setting, we succumb to what our teachers have told us and start to spout abstractions. But once we realize that our listeners actually want to hear stories, then we can relax and do what we all do in a social setting and tell stories.

One of the things I have done in some recent presentations is not to use a presentation aid. I have just stood up and talked, trying to weave a tale around the points I want to make. I have found this much more effective personally – I tend to speak with more passion, and the audience is listening to me, rather than looking to the presentation. While this may not work in all settings, this approach is something which definitely needs more thought.

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