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Narrative vs abstract thinking

The awesome power of storytelling

Analytic, abstract thinking is ideal for reporting the regular, the expected, the normal, the ordinary, the unsurprising, the mundane, the things we often take so much for granted that we are hardly conscious that we know them at all.

By contrast, narrative thinking, encapsulated in stories and storytelling, is ideally suited to discussing the exceptional. Narrative thrives on the disruptions from the ordinary, the unexpected, the conflicts, the deviations, the surprises, the unusual. Stories flourish in the overthrow of the existing order by some event or thought that changes our perspective. Stories derive their power from a violation of the normal and the legitimate and the ordinary, which in turn generates the fear and curiosity and excitement which we all feel when listening to a good new story. In this way, stories appeal not only to the mental process of the brain, but are grounded in the feelings of the listener. They thus appeal to both the mind and the heart.

Stories make the breaches of expectation comprehensible by relating the events to time and place and usually the intentions of the actors. By pointing to the extraordinary, stories - explicitly or implicitly - link the odd with the ordinary, the economical with the exuberant, the prescriptive and the descriptive, the internal subjective and the external objective. Stories provide guidance for the listener about which things should be taken for granted and which need explaining.

"Rather than Talleyrand's canny formula for keeping things ordinary, "N'expliquez jamais" (Never explain), narrative says, "N'expliquez sauf qu'il faut" (Only explain if it is necessary) and it is only necessary when it is an undisguisable deviation." (Bruner, page 349).

Stories revolve around what matters to people. They are human-centered in their essence and we are in consequence naturally drawn to them.

Stories have the power of ascending to the particular from the universal, in contrast to science's power to ascend to the general from the particular.

Stories, unlike logic, are not stopped dead by difficulty or contradiction. Stories thrive on conflict, on clashes of differing wills, on difficulties, on inconsistencies, on the very fault lines of society. We know instinctively that it is in these very fault lines that the keys to the living future lies. We intuitively grasp that this is where innovation comes from. Science and logic thrive on the banal, the regular, the routinely observable, the inert.

Storytelling doesn't undermine science

From Chapter 12 of The Secret Language of Leadership:

"In making the case for narrative, I am in no way trying to undermine science or drag the world back to the dark ages of myth and superstition. On the contrary, I am committed to science and its self-correcting methodology. We need to apply double-blind controls in experiments, where neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the experiment’s objectives during data collection. We need to vet our results at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. We should insist that research be replicated by others unaffiliated with the original researcher. In our reports, we need to include any evidence to the contrary, as well as alternative interpretations of the data. We need to encourage colleagues to be skeptical and to raise objections. If extraordinary claims are being made, we must put forward extraordinary evidence. Those methods need to be applied to the language of leadership as well as to everything else.

"But when we’ve done all that, and it’s vital that we do it, how do we communicate the results of what we have discovered, particularly if our findings are highly disruptive to people’s lives? If we try to communicate those findings by the same methods through which the findings were derived, what usually happens? Pushback. Resistance. Cynicism. Hostility. If we use narrative intelligence and employ the language of leadership, the results can be very different.

"It’s a matter of using science and analysis for what they are good at, and using the language of leadership to communicate science’s findings and get them implemented. Just think for a moment. Would it be scientific to go on using the language of analysis for an activity for which it isn’t suited, while refusing to use a different language that does work? To adopt such an approach would be the height of unscientific behavior."

Storytelling complements abstract analysis

Storytelling doesn’t replace analytical thinking. It supplements it by enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds, and is ideally suited to communicating change and stimulating innovation. Abstract analysis is easier to understand when seen through the lens of a well-chosen story and can of course be used to make explicit the implications of a story. The Springboard does not recommend abandoning abstract thinking, nor does it suggest that we should give up the advances that have emerged through experimentation and science. It discusses the discovery of the power of storytelling and the mechanisms by which it operates, thus remedying the neglect of storytelling, but not so as to jettison analytic thinking. It proposes marrying the communicative and imaginative strengths of storytelling with the advantages of abstract and scientific analysis.

Chapter 10 of The Springboard examines the various options that are available to achieve a good marriage. Chapter 11 of The Springboard explores the difficulties that a cognitive scientist encounters in understanding the marriage. The final chapter discusses how the marriage of narrative and analysis itself evolves as a change idea becomes accepted by an organization.

Reference: Jerome Bruner, Culture and Human Development: A New Look, in Human Development, (1990) volume 33: pages 344-355.

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