This past week I have been reading interview transcripts for a client. After reading several of these 20-page documents it became clear what was able to hold my attention — stories, especially first person accounts. I also remember the stories much better than the general discussions or advice given. One of the simplest definitions of storytelling is by Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal — Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication.
Roger Schank has covered story telling and knowledge management in great detail. Here are some highlights from a 2010 DARPA presentation.
- Comprehension means “mapping your stories onto my stories”. It’s difficult to communicate with someone who has different stories.
- Stories: should be full of details but short
- Lecture: people cannot think about what they are thinking and listen to the speaker at the same time
- Stories, to be effective, must not be too abstract for the person listening. Listeners must be able to absorb the stories.
- In good stories, we do not give answers.
I had previously worked with stories on a client project to implement an ‘institutional memory’ system. This client was growing at a rapid rate and wanted employees in the future to understand the past of the organization. We learned that to be effective, institutional memory — especially the decisions taken over time — has to be part of the workflow of any knowledge worker doing complex work and making decisions.
Ewen Le Borgne writes that, “Institutional memory feeds off strong personal knowledge management among individual staff members”. Personal knowledge mastery is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively. PKM is an ongoing process of filtering information from our networks, creating knowledge individually and with our teams, and then discerning with whom and when to share the artifacts of our knowledge. PKM helps to put our knowledge maps out there for others to see.
The field of knowledge management is nothing without people engaged in the process. Viola Spolin, creator of the ‘Theater Games’ actor training system, said that, “Information is a weak form of communication.” But, it can be improved, as Gary Schwartz notes, “Story becomes important in the ordering of all this information.” Stories are the glue, holding information together in some semblance of order, for our brains to process into knowledge.
But time and place for telling stories are also important. In Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory Charlotte Linde discusses the importance of ‘occasions’ in sharing institutional memory. “Without the occasion, the story rarely or never gets told”. Linde concludes that, “A story not having a proper occasion on which it can or must be told exists in an archive if it exists at all. An institution not having a range of occasions for telling stories is not likely to be working its past very hard.” My own experience in the military reflects many different occasions, from formal to very relaxed, in which to share stories.
For example, while any company’s institutional memory should be what Linde refers to as an open canon, or one that has new stories added over time, there is also a place for an official version of certain stories. An example is the first authorized history of MidWest Insurance, published in 1955 and still printed for internal use. Linde at first wondered if the book was more for show than use.
I began to wonder whether the book was displayed as a talisman of loyalty or whether it really was read. When I mused on this question to a district manager I had come to know, she assured me that she used it all the time. I asked what she used it for. Her answer was that she “mined it for stories” for speeches, since she had come to the company relatively recently, and that she didn’t know the history “by blood”, that is, she did not come from a MidWest family, and had joined MidWest in the middle of her career.
We are hard-wired to tell and remember stories. It probably began when we started to sit around a fire. Early humans may have diverged from other primates when they began eating meat. This meat was likely burnt from frequent lightning strikes on the African savanna. They did not even have to know how start a fire, only how to keep one going. Eating cooked meat gave a much higher caloric intake and human brains grew significantly larger than their primate cousins.
As humans developed a taste for cooked meat and a source of constant fire at their campsites, they had to work together socially. Hunting or gathering during the day was very task-focused but in the evening, groups of our ancestors sat around the fire for protection. This is where storytelling began. Modern day Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari Desert reflect this in their daily routine — ‘daytime talk’ and ‘fireside talk’ are quite different. The vocabulary of the latter is much larger and evenings are more engaged in storytelling. This is one of the initial premises of Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Origins of Creativity.
However, I will close with a word of caution. While storytelling skills may be important, a critical network era skill — as we get inundated with stories on social media — will be the ability to deconstruct stories, or story skepticism. 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. We need to become story skeptics so that the many emerging and deceptive storytellers do not lead us astray.