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What is a story? What is narrative meaning?

Some Definitions

A narrative or story in its broadest sense is anything told or recounted; more narrowly, and more usually, something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events; account; tale,: the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious.

Narrative meaning is created by establishing that something is a part of a whole and usually that something is the cause of something else. It is usually combined with human actions or events that affect human beings. The meaning of each event is produced by the part it plays in the whole episode.

To say what something means is to say how it is related or connected to something else. To ask the meaning of an event is to ask how it contributed to the story in which it occurs. It is the connections or relations between events.

Meaning is a social phenomenon. Meaning is produced not only by individuals but by groups, communities, societies and cultures which maintain - through language and agreed understandings - knowledge of the connections between signifying sounds and signifying events.

Groups, communities, societies and cultures also preserve collections of typical narrative meanings in their myths, fairy tales, legends, histories and stories. To participate in a group, community, society or culture requires a general knowledge of these accumulated narrative meanings. The cultural stock of meanings are dynamic and are added to by new contributions from members and deleted by lack of use.

Narrative meaning is about connections. It links individual human actions and events into inter-related aspects of an understandable composite. Narrative displays the significance that events have for one another. (The anti-story makes explicit that events do not have causal connections between each other.)

Stories fill our lives in the way that water fills the lives of fish. Stories are so all-pervasive that we practically cease to be aware of them.

"The products of our narrative schemes are ubiquitous in our lives: they fill our cultural and social environment. We create narrative descriptions for ourselves and for others about our own past actions, and we develop storied accounts that give sense to the behavior of others. We also use the narrative scheme to inform our decisions by constructing imaginative "what if" scenarios. On the receiving end, we are constantly confronted with stories during our conversations and encounters with the written and visual media. We are told fairy tales as children, and read and discuss stories in school." (Polkinghorne)

"The narratives of the world are without number...the narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives:" (Barthes).

Beyond storytelling: narrative intelligence

In my book, The Secret Language of Leadership, I introduce the concept of narrative intelligence. I do this, because "storytelling" seems to imply a one-way relationship -- "I tell the story and you are to listen." An adept use of narrative and storytelling takes place with in a two-way, interactive relationship.

References:

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

Donald E. Polkinghorne, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Roland Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of the Narrative, Occasional Paper, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1996.


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