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Storytelling In The News: #129

Growing role of storytelling in business

From a Sow's Ear to a Silk Purse

April 24, 2004

This month, the British journal, Global Province, has an interesting piece on organizational storytelling entitled, From a Sow's Ear to a Silk Purse.

After going through the storytelling fell into disrepute in business, and how business communications became less and less intelligible, the Global Province says that things are changing.

It says that what’s new in 2004 is that the story today not only is at the heart of culture but is also cropping up more and more in business practice as enterprises try to build more authentic connections with their employees, customers, and other constituencies. In part, this seems to be a reaction to our digital world, where we are assaulted by proliferating bits of information that never seem to add up to anything. Somebody has to put all this stuff together.

Story, Inc. Numerous large companies are now using storytellers in a host of ways. Hewlett-Packard, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Pixar use story consultants to reinforce corporate beliefs and to teach managers the art of the story and its use in their work. See “Fabulists at the Firm,” The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2004, p. W11.

Stephen Denning writes about the use of storytelling in knowledge transmission in The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations.

“In Britain,” says the Journal, “corporate storytelling is part of a larger fashion for trying somehow to mesh the arts with business. One prominent advocate is theater director Richard Olivier, who has a second career going as the director of the Olivier Mythodrama Associates Limited.” The Brits, we think, theorize that storytelling and literary excursions do more than spread knowledge: They see fiction, plays, even poetry as devices for inspiring creativity.

Stories are creeping into advertisements as well. Years ago an advertising guru was heard to say, “Truth is what really sells. Now if we could only package truth.” Short of that, company brand managers now employ fiction to make a point.

For instance, Ford of Great Britain has hired British “chick-lit” novelist Carole Matthews to bring spice to its Ford Fiesta by weaving it into her books, by doing monthly stories for its website, and by heading up a Ford short story competition. It’s thought that this tactic will hook 25-to-35 year-old women. (See The New York Times, March 23, 2004, p.C2)....

Some medical schools, by popular demand, are now offering courses on medical narrative. See “The Writing Cure: Can Understanding Narrative Make You A Better Doctor?” New York Times Magazine, April 18, 2004, pp.42-47. Many physicians scoff at the value of such courses, but we suspect that the story is integral to good healthcare. Specialists who only deal with events and procedures can ignore histories. Physicians who care about lives must embrace the whole of the patient they would seek to treat, capturing the totality in a story.

The story is a tool for business, for healthcare, and, critically, for education. In her essay, “Ojos Sobre Cuba,” San Francisco speechwriter Rebecca Otto remarks on the presence of readers or lectors in Cuba’s cigar factories. They sit in front of the workers, reeling off the news of the day and reciting stories from current, popular books. Cuba has achieved a 97% literacy rate, in part by bringing books and knowledge to workers wherever they might be—in a factory or picking sugar cane out in the fields.

The Global Province concludes: "Everywhere we go, stories entertain, instruct, engage, and enrich. Society, it seems, needs good yarns with a touch of vision, not just to pass the time but to keep moving forward into the future. Without a story, all our todays seem like yesterdays, and there are no tomorrows. Stories turn sows’ ears into silk purses."

Read Global Province

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