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Oral versus written stories

The ancestral stories of oral cultures and their relevance for today's world

The Springboard (chapter 8) describes how oral storytelling was found to be more powerful than the distribution of written stories in a modern organization.

The tradition behind the modern "discovery" of this ancient truth is very long.

"The ancestral stories of an oral culture are recounted again and again -- only thus can they be preserved -- and in this regular, often periodic repetition serves to bind the community to the ceaseless round dance of the cosmos. the mythic creation stories of these cultures are not, like Western biblical accounts of the world's creation, descriptions of events assumed to have happened only once in the far-off past. Rather, the very telling of these stories actively participates in a creative process that is felt to be happening right now, an ongoing emergence whose periodic renewal actually requires such participation...

"Recording events in writing establishes, as well, a new experience of the permanence, fixity, and unrepeatable quality of those events. Once fixed on the written surface, mythic events are no longer able to shift their form to fit current situations. Current happenings are thus robbed of their mythic, storied, resonance."
Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, page 186, 188

The modern problem of authenticity

Oral storytelling also helps deal with the modern problem of lack of authenticity, in that written texts are disconnected from their author. In organizations, documents are often the product of a committee, or team, whose draft represents the lowest common denominator of what can be agreed among differing individuals. Post-modernist writers have diagnosed the problem of lack of authenticity, and suggested that, in written documents, "authorship is dead", because:
  • the author is not available for study, since what we usually have before us is the text, not the author;

  • authors cannot control interpretations that readers give to their work; and

  • the author's intentions may be subservient to language and context.

    In an oral performance, however, the author (the speaker) is not only "available for study". He or she is present and interacting with the audience so that the interpretation of the performance is necessarily a joint product of the speaker and listeners. Neither author nor audience can claim sole authorship of the meaning.

    The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (2005) and The Secret Language of Leadership (October 2007) continue to explore the importance of oral storytelling in a wider array of leadership contexts, including discussions of whether and to what extent written or electronic communications can be effective. In general, once a story is fixed in a written or electronic format, it tends to "congeal" and lose its quality of "aliveness".

    Here's an excerpt from The Secret Language of Leadership:

    "When we hear a powerful story, we have the feeling that it is somehow unique, somehow without precedent. We perceive a sense of the “newbornness” of the entire world, as if there has been nothing like this, ever, anywhere. It is the same feeling that we get when we perceive a beautiful object that “fills the mind and …gives the ‘never before in the history of the world’ feeling.”

    "Story stimulates creativity. It causes us to gape and suspend analytic thought, to set aside the inclination to slice and dice experience into abstract categories. Instead, the mind is prompted to search backward to earlier examples and parallels. And simultaneously we are prompted to new acts of creation, to imagine other analogous examples in the future. One story leads to more stories.

    "A story thus moves us to bring new things into the world. It hurtles us forward and backward, requiring us to break new ground but obliging us also to refer back to territory we thought we had left behind. In this way, stories, like all beautiful objects, carry greetings from other worlds.

    "Just as the moment of hearing a powerful story makes the listener more lively, so the fact of listening to the story turns it into a living thing. The seeming aliveness of the story makes listeners want to pass it on."

    Note: This passages draws on the work of Elaine Scarry's wonderful little book, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999),:

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