13 Sep Storytelling makes a comeback in an unlikely place
MADISON, Wis. — Members of the World Future Society came together recently to hear a story of an emerging trend in the corporate world — the use of storytelling as a business tool.
Lori Silverman, owner of the consulting firm Partners for Progress and co-author of the organizational performance book Critical Shift, explained how simply following a story arc changes the whole face of business, creating better communication, recall and commitment in the workforce.
“It’s my belief — my contention — there is a tool for us to use, and it’s a tool called story.” Silverman said. “I’d like to show you tools and techniques people are using … what I consider to be some of the best-kept secrets in business today.”
In her presentation September 9 at the Fluno Center, Silverman illustrated that in the business world, it has become difficult to actually capture someone’s attention for enough time to share critical information, in an “ADD in orientation” society. Bullet points, which are used very freely in the business setting, do not work well for conveying information because the information comes too quickly with no context, she said. The human brain is actually set up to handle information on a narrative level, because there is progression of thought and memorable key points.
Stories fit that narrative level, and manage to touch it on four different levels: physical, mental, emotional, and the human spirit. Good stories can bring out an actual reaction that bullet points can’t — laughter or smiles at something funny, or a personal connection when the story reminds them of something in their own lives. More than that though, a story with upheaval and depth can stir people into action.
“That is the key — it could be change in people’s attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors,” Silverman said. “And I think that is what they’re truly looking for in organizations today, in terms of the sorts of results we would like to get.”
As a narrative example, Silverman told a story she had heard which began at the United Way of America, which wanted to revamp its strategy. With hundreds of divisions scattered around the country there was no community or understanding, and money distributed to causes was given in all the wrong places.
Taking the advice of consultants, United Way brought together all the heads of 1400 different businesses and shared something simple with them, a story that had been developed in some anonymous point of the organization.
In it, a village bands together to recover a series of babies drowning in a lake, but cannot keep up with the pace. A little girl becomes curious as to where the babies come from, and finds a giant ogre throwing them in out of the villager’s sight. She goes back and manages to get their attention one villager at a time, and brings them all to the ogre. Seeing they cannot defeat it individually, they band together and use their individual talents, eventually bringing the monster down.
While this story is as simple as any children’s story, it has become the second-most-downloaded file from the United Way’s Web site, and within the space of three months has been credited by branches as impetus to revise operations. United Way employees have taken this “metaphor story” and are using its example, looking for new, real-life examples to use in the same way.
“How else could they have done it — cajole, encourage, force people?” Silverman said. “A single story, told a single time, repeated the next day … started to cause action to take place.”
Silverman shared how the use of “strategic stories” has entered popular usage, helping companies to expand and inspire the workplace. In a department which is being reorganized, each of the people in the department told a story about something exciting that happened to them, and then were put into groups to share that information and create new stories. All those stories were then fitted together, and were used to create the philosophy and vision for the department. With this strategy, a company built its new business plan in only six hours.
“It’s taking another approach, to take the left-brain information and combining it with the right side to make sense of it all in very short time,” Silverman said.
For the future of organizational storytelling, Silverman illustrated that the concept of using stories is now — more than ever — invaluable in a business setting. Companies such as the Kentucky League of Cities have made it part of employee policy to use the format of storytelling and hunt down relevant stories, and they use them on their Web sites and presentations to talk about the benefits. Miller Brewing Company gave its research staff digital cameras to get their research information.
Silverman said that with all the successes, storytelling will move into a more streamlined process. “The past four years have been primarily ‘anecdotal’ practice, people just trying stuff … I think we’ll go from this application to people trying to understand the depth of the theory, bringing that out and making it practical.”
Linda Gorchels, president of the Madison World Future Society, praised Silverman’s expertise and the value of her topic. “The message of storytelling is timely…it’s something that’s seeing a resurgence, as society is feeling a need to reconnect.”