Tell Me Your Story

(From My Post on LinkedIn Pulse)

Everyone is talking about storytelling these days. It’s in vogue. A buzzword. At the corporate level you hear how meetings need to be based around a narrative. In journalism training you see a huge emphasis on storytelling over and above simply emphasizing facts. Marketing whitepapers are going crazy over the need to make a narrative out of your organization’s messaging. Nonprofits and fundraisers are waking up to the realization that it is all about stories (not just the poster child story, but the story of the organization, and now, even the story of the donor).

I am glad to see all this. But even as a strong believer in the power of stories I am intrigued at why it’s in such vogue. Thinking about it, here are some reasons I came up with:

1) Our society is deluged with information and much of it is passed on without greater context. We are suffocating from lack of context. (A story is all about context and the dramatic arc that stories possess). Everywhere we turn there is a flood of information. But it is different than in previous days. Once upon a time news articles, consumer information, even advertising was delivered mostly within the context of a magazine, a store, a TV show, a network, a brand. But that has changed. Where editors and producers used to define the context of our information, now we are our own guides and our own editors. (That isn’t all bad – many of us for years decried the gatekeepers in the media and their more or less evident biases and distorted views of reality). But now we are on the other side of the pendulum. And we are suffering some new effects from it. Much of the news these days is being consumed article by article. We get most of our information à la carte or cafeteria style. Our favorite gatekeepers may be our friends linking articles on Facebook as we read our “newsfeed” diligently every day.

After a while people get tired of not having a solid larger context. There comes a craving for context. What does this article mean? How do I see this point of view in light of the bigger picture? What is “the rest of the story?” as Paul Harvey used to say. So, we develop a thirst for narratives and the stories that hold things together.

(I could get philosophical here and talk about the effect of postmodernism, the destruction of the grand narrative concept, the accompanying idea that everything is about “me,” and so forth. It’s all tied together. But I’ll save that for another time.)

#2) Besides not having context we are overloaded with analytical information (rather than analogical information). Analysis uses mostly the left side of the brain while analogy tends to use the right side. Honestly, I believe the left sides of our brains are becoming weary. A good story, happy ending or sad ending, a laugh, a joke – these carry much more water nowadays.

#3) We are not satisfied, even in the midst of our technology. Yes, technology can be great. I look around my desk at all the digital tools that I have. (I was a pioneer in digital space). But, you know what? Sometimes I get tired of talking to and listening to robots. We begin to long for human faces (OK, some don’t and they are starting to scare me). We want to talk with people.

But more and more, robots are replacing people in our lives. Try calling a support desk to get help understanding the gadget you’re trying to work with and often you get more robots, or at best phone menus. Where are the human beings? The big question of the future may be: “How can we tell the human being from the robot?” – If I were to place a bet it would be decided by who tells the best story. I have noticed that I am developing a habit of cheering when a help desk (human) makes a mistake. “I am so glad you are a human!” I tell them.

Yes we’re hungry for stories. We are starving for stories. It may be a fad and a buzzword in business but it’s not a gimmick. It is part of the essence of human communication.

(Now. Having finished all that necessary analysis, let me tell you an interesting story!)

A few years ago, I was working with an influential organization in the mid-Atlantic region of the US. The president of the company and I were both southerners, and, as many southerners do, we started most of our business “chats” by telling stories. One day we had an important problem to solve, and one of the high-level managers was in the president’s office to help work on the solution. He was a very “straight-to-the-point” fellow and not fond of beating around the bush, so to speak. After about 25 minutes of watching stories flow between the president and me, the other manager was visibly frustrated.

The president then stood up, we shook hands and he said, “We solved it.” The other manager was befuddled. But we had figured it out. As we had laughed and gone through some good tales, the solution had become very obvious to the two of us. I am not sure the other manager has figured it out to this day.

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