Story & Narrative

The case for stories and storytelling

The last few years have seen a huge upsurge of interest in harnessing the power and influence of stories and leadership narratives, particularly in the corporate world. Why? Our thinking highlights seven key reasons.

1. Leadership narratives and credibility 

The first is the realisation that leaders (in the broadest sense of the word) need to tell convincing and coherent stories to establish credibility, relationship, and a sense of purposeful direction with those they seek to influence. Stories connect with hearts as well as minds.

2. Critical advantage

Another reason is the awareness that stories are our natural medium of communication; around 80% of our daily conversations fall into the category of storytelling whether it be presentation, example, anecdote, or gossip. The oldest extant written story – Gilgamesh – is over 4000 years old; stories in the oral tradition have been around for tens of thousands of years. Some anthropologists claim that it is the ability to organise our thinking through the stories we hear and tell that has given humans a critical advantage over other species. Relevant, well-delivered stories are more relational, resonate longer in the memory, and are easier on the ear than power points and bullet points.

3. Sense making and meaning making

We make sense of the world through the stories we tell. The stories we tell ourselves shape who we are, shape how we see others and our environment, and shape how we make meaning about the world we inhabit. These stories and their interpretations are not ‘true’; they are constructions. So the question arises: are we telling stories that serve us, our community, and the wider world or are our stories part of the problem? What stories do we need to build on and which do we need to let go of?

4. Managing change

For change to be effective it has to happen simultaneously across three domains: ourselves, others, and the dominant norms of the culture in which we operate. Stories play a vital part in this. Our sense of identity changes when we change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Teams, groups, communities, and organisations change when the stories and storytelling dynamics between people change. In other words, people become empowered only when their stories are given credence and listened to. Finally, our view and experience of the world changes when we challenge the prevailing culture and imagine newer, more useful and sustainable possibilities. To do this we need to tell authentic and compelling leadership stories and narratives that are rooted in ‘reality.’

5. Leadership conversations

Of course there will be occasions when leadership may require leading from the front and making things happen unilaterally, for example in crisis management and firefighting situations. However, the trend in effective contemporary organisations appears increasingly to favour flatter structures, in particular more autonomous self-organising, self-managing systems. These mature, post-conventional approaches embrace and embody the notion that leadership is more a process of collaborative meaning making: a social process in which more rather than fewer people participate in shared and worthwhile enterprises. Bottom line remains important but there is a bigger vision at work: that business should create wealth in many different ways and serve the wider community rather than just a few individuals.

This way of leading requires the creation of a culture that encourages curiosity, openness, and much deeper listening to the stories of others. If, as has been argued above, stories are the key way in which we make meaning, then stories are at the core of this kind of narrative leadership.

6. Contemporary research

There’s a huge amount of contemporary research – particularly in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and anthropology – that points to story and narrative as the simplest, most effective, most powerful, and most memorable way to reach the hearts and minds of others.  Human beings apparently are hard wired for stories.

Because stories are experiential and multi-sensory they stimulate responses in our head, heart and belly, engaging our reason, curiosity and energy in ways that other forms of communication cannot even begin to match. Timely, relevant, well-told stories resonate in our minds and memories long after the event. They create emotional connections that make actions and ideas seem ‘real’.  They make our thinking and values explicit. They can give our listeners a powerfully visceral sense of what the future changes we are proposing might actually feel like.

In short, the research tells us that stories build relationships; help engage others in a shared sense of vision, purpose & collaboration; organise our journey through time; and help us make sense of ourselves and our world.

7. It’s what we already do

We all tell stories. We cannot not tell stories in our day to day communication with ourself and others. But if stories can do so much, as outlined above, surely it makes sense to improve our awareness of how stories work, how to choose and shape them, know when to use them, know their limitations, and understand how to tell them to maximum effect. Learning these skills is not rocket science, they are within the gift of almost everybody. And it is surprising how learning some straightforward skills and techniques can transform an individual’s ability to connect and communicate in a manner entirely disproportionate to the effort involved.



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