The Storytelling Animal

storytelling-animalIn The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall tells us how stories make us human. The book looks at gender differences in weaving our own stories, the cultural significance of stories, and some of the science and pseudo-science on story, narration and memory. It boils down to a simple formula, says Gottschall.

Story = Character + Predicament
+ Attempted Extrication

This made me consider how this could be important for institutional memory. Would this be a good formula to try to capture past events from those who have experienced them? It could be, but it might be highly dependent on how much time has passed and how important accuracy is, as we are not very good at remembering, especially critical, or “flashbulb”, events. “Memory isn’t an outright fiction; it is merely a fictionalization“, says Gottschall.

The signature flashbulb event of our age is 9/11, which led to a bonanza of false-memory research. The research shows two things: that people are extremely sure of their 9/11 memories and that upward of 70% of us misremember key aspects of the attacks … In one study, 73 percent of research subjects misremembered watching, horrified, as the first plane plowed into the North Tower on the morning of September 11.

The research shows that our memories get worse over time, but our stories, as we remember them, become much clearer. We have a propensity for self-delusion, something every jury member should always keep in mind. But fiction (story) is much more powerful than non-fiction. Gottschall discusses the power of Wagner’s mythology on Hitler, as well as how the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, influenced the 19th century anti-slavery movement.

When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.

Consider the above statement and think about training. Would it not be more effective if content was developed as stories? How about knowledge management? I think stories would be most effective for new hire training. Perhaps we should focus less on instructional design or knowledge repositories. Instead, organizations could engage good story tellers. We hear a lot about the importance of curation in the digital workplace today. The best curators are also story tellers.

I enjoyed this book and learned a fair bit from it, but it is not a book that deals much with how stories can be used for KM or other organizational purposes.

6 Responses to “The Storytelling Animal”

  1. John David Smith

    What is always striking is that people who write books that prove that stories are such a powerful way to influence our thinking almost never do it by telling stories.

    • Harold

      There are many stories in the book, but I understand your point, John. However, I think it may have been rather difficult to convey everything as a single story.

  2. Wally Bock

    There are companies that do this. Ritz-Carlton uses stories one of the primary ways to convey both information and values.

  3. James Tyer

    We use stories and discussions about those stories for new hires and sales information sharing (I don’t want to call it “training”). This is done both in-person and on our employee portal; very often a mix of the two. I’ve been looking for some more concrete research on story effectiveness, so this was very helpful. Thanks for this Harold!

  4. Gaston Bilder

    Still interested in learning more about KM and storytelling, in particular whether there is a particular structure for such stories to enable effective KM

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