I have been thinking about storytelling lately as a lot of people are talking about it as essential for business, leadership, and whatever ails you. I have discussed it a few times over the years and have reviewed these thoughts. It appears that in the network era, storytelling is being retrieved, especially through podcasting and videos. Stories can be the glue, holding information together in some semblance of order, for our brains to process into knowledge.
We are storytelling creatures. Shawn Callahan noted that, “Our memories evolved to hunt, gather & avoid danger. Now we have great memories for places, faces & emotions. Why stories are memorable.” Stories are a key factor in how we learn, especially socially. Roger Schank observed that, “Comprehension is mapping your stories onto mine.” Stories are how we best remember and a story can be thought of as what happens in the gap between expectations and results.
Here is an example from Canadian infantry soldiers in Afghanistan.
“ When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups – [Professor Anne] Irwin calls them ‘nesting circles’ – and recount the events of the day or the mission. Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other. The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.” —John Cotter, Canadian Press, July 03, 2006
In business, stories are an important medium for marketing and communications.
“As I’ve said before, storytelling is perhaps the most important skill a 21st century business can develop. This is certainly the case with marketing — stories build deep relationships with audiences in ways advertisements don’t and coupons nigh can’t. But it’s also the case with product.” —Shane Snow
We are more open to receiving stories than we are to understanding facts and logical arguments.
“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.” —Jonathan Gottschall
Stories can therefore promote positive or negative social movements.
“While Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed Americans about the United States’ dehumanization of African Americans and slavery, Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves. Not only did Rand make it ‘moral’ for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she ‘liberated’ millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.” —How Ayn Rand Helped Make the US Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation
But are stories that come from sources of power merely tools to control us?
“It’s received wisdom in learning that storytelling and narrative are unquestionably good. But is it? Plato warned against filling young minds with fixed narratives and I’m coming round to a similar view, but with a twist. I’ve always been a big fan of sports and more recently of reality TV. Add to this computer games, virtual worlds, blogging, wikis, social networks, email, messenger and skype, and I find that most (not all) of what I really love is relatively unscripted, open, fluid, and often with more than a touch of ‘play’.
The top-down, command and control, baby-boomer culture is really starting to annoy me. The more I watch prescribed movies and TV, with their fixed plot structure, and abandon the publishing hyped ‘modern’ novel, the more I enjoy life. There’s an obsession with ‘stories’ that borders on the manic in learning, the arts and media. They really do want us to open our mouths and swallow.” —Donald Clark
While storytelling skills may be important, a critical network era skill will be the ability to deconstruct stories. Thinking critically about how a story affects us emotionally is important before hitting the Tweet or Post buttons that are now so handy on our smart devices. The medium is the message, and that medium is able to route around our rational brain and go straight to our most primitive feelings. We need to become story skeptics so all those emerging master storytellers do not lead us astray.