FREDDY (referring to the papers)
But what is this?

It's an amusing anecdote about a drug deal… The things you gotta remember are the details. It's the details that sell your story. Now this story takes place in this men's room. So you gotta know the details about this men's room. You gotta know they got a blower instead of a towel to dry your hands. You gotta know the stalls ain't got no doors. You gotta know whether they got liquid or powdered soap, whether they got hot water or not, 'cause if you do your job when you tell your story, everybody should believe it. And if you tell your story to somebody who's actually taken a piss in this men's room, and you get one detail they remember right, they'll swear by you.

- the “commode story”, Reservoir Dogs

Storytelling has of course existed since language began, but only now is it being used as a deliberate tool for sharing knowledge in business. Business communications are, as we know, often dry, shrouded in impenetrable language (more on this in a future post), and generally devoid of human interest. Stories offer a different perspective to this didactic and mechanical communication.

A typical story (termed a springboard story by Steve Denning) is told from the point of view of an individual who is faced with a challenge analogous to that faced by the business. The method in which the protagonist overcomes this unusual challenge helps listeners to see what is involved in a large-scale transformation.

Stories aren’t particularly good for relaying complex information. Their true strength comes from their role of ‘catalysts for understanding’; dialogues rather than lectures, concerned with building relationships rather than instructing. It’s a good idea to practice these stories and refine them over time, building confidence and learning to adapt them slightly to your audience. Remember that stories rarely get interrupted!

Criticisms of storytelling

The anti-story is a powerful and destructive rumour or denial that contradicts your story – it only needs one person to say “I was there, and that’s not how it happened” to undermine all your efforts. One need only think of the thousands of urban myths circulating the internet to realise that the anti-story is very much a self-sustaining thing.

There is also a risk of being seen to be telling a fairytale - the so-called “Janet and John” story where everyone magnificently conforms to the corporate values and, surprise surprise, success results. Listeners will rightly react against this and create their own barriers and anti-stories of their own.

Personally, I’ll admit I’m still slightly sceptical of storytelling. Perhaps I’m hung up on the term itself, which is a little unscientific and unprofessional for my liking. I certainly prefer the term ‘narrative’ which also happily moves us away from the amateurish “I can do that” approach that sometimes pervades through certain KM areas. However, I do think there is some definite value in the concepts behind storytelling. Lecturing and top-down instruction often paints too black-and-white a picture, ignoring the important human frame of reference. Even a scientist cannot describe everything in structured terms: light, for instance, can be described as both an electromagnetic wave and a stream of particles. For these situations where the facts alone don’t get the whole message across, storytelling may well be able to bridge the human interest gap.

More about storytelling

Cennydd Bowles