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Storytelling and persuasion

Selling vs leading

The literature of persuasion has an unsavory reputation, so unsavory in fact that one may hesitate to call it a literature at all. Here we find ourselves here in the land of the salesman and the huckster, the world of the high-pressure sales campaign, of the fast buck and the hustle, with recommendations of subliminal techniques and unscrupulous ploys aimed at separating honest citizens from their hard-earned livelihood by getting them to buy things they neither want nor need.

The dodgy world of homo vendens

This is the world of Dale Carnegie, who has sold some fifteen million copies of his book extolling the merits of lavishing the deftly chosen compliment, smiling the kind of smile that will bring a good price in the marketplace, and evincing purported interest in the lives of the potential customers, or his modern successor, Robert Cialdini, who explains in horrifying detail how the “foot in the door” or the “bait and switch” techniques can routinely persuade people to do or buy the most stupid of things.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of these writings is the evolution shown in the contrast between Carnegie who, writing in 1937, displays no sense of irony or apology for the tackiness of his message, and Cialdini who, writing in 1982, is obliged to purport to be deploring, and defending against, the very techniques which he glorifies at such length.

As the new millennium opens to a close, the unpleasant odor that emanates from these slimy and insincere methodologies is widely recognized and rightly condemned. Homo vendens is not someone we trust or admire, nor is he a person that we would really like to invite home to our dinner tables, unless perhaps he has a good wash beforehand and employs an effective deodorant and promises not to talk shop.

The uninviting world of the purely rational man

If the hard sell of homo vendens is unattractive and reprehensible, albeit regrettably effective, what is the alternative? Homo vendens is often contrasted to the great hero of Western literature, rational man. The paradigm of rational man is enshrined in a distinguished literary tradition dating back to Aristotle in ancient Greece which presupposes that (1) humans are essentially rational beings; (2) the normal mode of human decision-making and communication is argument -- clear-cut inferences from known facts -- and (3) the world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason. In some ways, the modern corporation is the organizational embodiment of rational man, with whole armies of staff pursuing economic goals by rational means, thus systematically solving the economic puzzles that the world represents. Rational debate and cool, usually quantitative, analysis are the honored modes of its discourse.

An early exponent of the paradigm of rational man was the Greek philosopher, Socrates, who among other things went round pestering his fellow Athenian citizens with irritating and pedantic questions with such persistence and single-mindedness that eventually they got fed up with him and put him to death, ostensibly for impiety and corrupting the youth.

While one can regret the disproportion between the punishment and the alleged crime, it is also true that Socrates sometimes conducted himself with such intellectual officiousness, that one can at moments feel a twinge of sympathy for the actions of the ancient Athenians. The fact is that purely rational man is not a pleasant or agreeable companion. He is not someone we can listen to for very long. He is not someone we like – perhaps someone who might be good at doing our taxes, but not someone we want to spend time with. He is even someone we dread meeting, and we would not really want him at our dinner table, any more than we would want homo vendens. Purely rational man would be a very tiresome guest and spoil the party.

Socrates’ death at the hands of the ancient Athenians demonstrated in a dramatic fashion that having the better argument does not necessarily result in winning the argument. Even when purely rational man is entirely in the right, people may tend to resent him. He makes us feel like we are being used, by overpowering us with the strength of his logic. We don’t necessarily buy into his picture of the world as a logical puzzle to be solved, and to which he has the solution.

Perhaps in an ideal, albeit disagreeable, world, everyone might be purely rational, and then communications might proceed on a purely rational basis. But in the real world of today, it is not so, or at least, not yet. The truth is that human beings are not fully and accurately represented by the concept of purely rational man. As a result, dealing with the elements beyond pure reason is key both to understanding and succeeding in the real world.

The world of homo narrans

In truth, Socrates himself was not merely the purely rational man of the more irritating dialogues transcribed by Plato. There was another side to Socrates, which he did reveal to his friends, and so he did succeed in being invited to dinner parties, including the most famous party of all time, which Plato re-created in the Symposium, where a conversation took place, the brilliance of which the wisest philosophers can admire and to which the most convivial hosts can aspire.

At this party, Socrates does not tiresomely brow-beat his fellow-guests with smug questions and arrogant terminological quibbles. Instead, like the other guests at the Symposium, he tells amusing and insightful stories, combined with shrewd analysis and sharp psychological and philosophical insights. The result is that we are at once enlightened and inspired and delighted and energized by the conversation. We are disappointed when it finally comes to a close and we, like the guests, have to go home.

In Plato’s Symposium, we find a quite different way of conversing from that of either purely rational man or the hard-sell of homo vendens. This way of conversing comprises a comfortable and attractive blend of storytelling and analysis. It is not pure story-telling since there is a significant amount of analysis of the meaning and implications of the stories. Nor is it the irritating and tiresome conduct of purely rational man who is little more than a bundle of arguments and analyses. Nor is it the mode of homo vendens with a stack of gadgets in his steel briefcase to trick us into buying into his hidden agenda and doing things against our will.

Let us call the person who converses in this mode, homo narrans -- a person who combines story-telling and analysis in a discourse that is rational, lively, imaginative, open to dialogue, entertaining and persuasive. This is the kind of person we would like to have at our dinner tables, and with whom we would be willing to discuss even the most difficult and controversial of topics. It is the sort of the person we might like to have as a friend and companion. It is the sort of person we would listen to, since conversing with homo narrans might well lead to the mutual discovery of truth.

Leadership in a modern corporation

To the extent that the executive in a large modern corporation attempts to be the embodiment of purely rational man, it should not come as a surprise that he encounters a certain amount of difficulty in persuading the managers and staff of an organization to change, and that rational arguments and calculations and analyses do not seem to get the job done.

When executives adopt the tactics of homo vendens, with the unscrupulous tactics of "foot in the door" and "bait and switch", there isn't the salesman's luxury of moving on to the next unfortunate victim. The executive must live with the other managers and employees - and with the consequences of his acts.

When the failure to persuade, particularly of major changes, is pervasive, the executive might be entitled to wonder, faute de mieux, whether any harm would be done by inquiring, at least hypothetically, how homo narrans might go about persuading an organization to change. Storytelling is by its very nature well adapted to the task of genuine persuasion. and creating innovation and genuine buy-in for change.

The secret language of leadership

What's involved in learning how to become a leader with the skills of homo narrans?

That's the subject of The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass: October 2007). Here's an excerpt from chapter 1:

"For a very long time, we’ve been living with the idea that leadership and change are driven by the efforts of a few exceptional people. This book puts forward a different idea. It says that change and leadership don’t require exceptional people at all. Leadership and change are driven by ordinary people who act and speak in a different way. Once people grasp what is involved in acting and speaking in that way and take the trouble to master it, then they find that anyone can drive change, if they want to.

"For too long, we’ve been thinking that leadership was some kind of innate gift, a mysterious kind of genetically inherited charisma. But once we’ve deciphered the language of leadership and understood its essential enabling conditions, transformational leadership is no longer a mystery. Once the hidden patterns of the language of leadership are made explicit, leadership becomes accessible to anyone.

"While the main elements of the language of leadership are relatively simple and quick to understand, putting them into practice is something else. The bare essentials can be grasped in minutes, but fully mastering them may take a lifetime.

"For some, particularly those habituated to the practice of hierarchical command-and-control management, learning the language of leadership will entail deep change. It isn’t some kind of party trick. It isn’t just a set of superficial techniques—it’s a different way of thinking, speaking, and acting. It requires that we understand our own values, thinking through what we are attempting, exhibiting more than a little humility, and being able to level with people and speak from a genuine point of view. It involves acquiring a new perspective on the world, a profound clarification of what it means to be leader."

For leaders to be effective in persuasion, either within the organization or in the marketplace, they not only need to develop narrative intelligence, they also need to make a shift from sales pitch to trusted partnership. To learn about this shift, read chapter 6 of The Secret Language of Leadership.


Stephen Denning: The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass: October 2007)

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 4-7, 11-12.

Aristotle, Organon.

Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936)

Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Quill, New York. 1984.

Plato, Symposium

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