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Storytelling In The News: #145

Financial Times discusses organizational storytelling

May 10, 2004

FT columnist Lucy Kellaway has an article in the Financial Times of May 10, 2004, entitled, "Once upon a time, we had managers, not storytellers." It is dismissive about "storytelling around the corporate campfire" but positive about my Harvard Business Review article, which she says is not storytelling. She writes:

Once upon a time, we had managers - not storytellers

It was the baby's bib that brought on the final crisis, and made me feel that the end had come. But that is to jump to the end of the story. First, let us start at the beginning.

Around the corporate campfire?

Once upon a time, one damp morning in May, I was sitting at my desk. Outside the birds may have been singing, but I was hunched over my computer looking things up on Google. The words I typed in were "storytelling" and "corporate". For I was trying to find out more about one of the most baffling management fashions of them all: the fad that says that telling stories is the best way of communicating, leading and getting people to do what you want them to.

When I first came across the corporate storytelling craze about six or seven years ago, I thought it was a joke. (Which, on second thoughts, doesn't set it apart from other management trends. I also suspected knowledge management was a joke, and total quality management, too. I'm sure I would also have thought six sigma funny if I had ever had the first idea of what it actually was.)

Back then I was confident that the storytelling thing would not last and, indeed, wondered if it was too far-fetched even to mention in a column. Still, I did write about it, saying that stories could sometimes be a good way of communicating, so long as they were short and to the point, and the person doing the telling was good at that sort of thing. Otherwise, I thought the facts could often do the same job rather better.

I was quite wrong. Since then this craze has grown and grown. Almost every institution you have ever heard of believes in storytelling. There are any number of annual conferences for storytellers.

There have been at least two sessions at the Smithsonian Institution on it. In July the 2004 Annual National Storytelling Conference will be held in Bellingham, Washington, complete with 52 workshops, a "Tellathon" and a special support group for storytellers. "This year we shall be offering a special pre-conference program devoted to supporting storytellers and story practitioners in their chosen fields," it says on the programme.

There turns out to be a huge industry of people with "storyteller" or, worse, "story practitioner" written on their business cards, who make a living helping executives with their stories. On one of the websites I found the following: "Evelyn Clark, The Corporate Storyteller, helps organisations, work teams and boards of directors to develop red-hot, value-based stories that spread like wildfire and propel them toward their vision."

It also announced that "Evelyn's highly-anticipated book, Around the Corporate Campfire, is ready!"

This is what gives me the creeps about storytelling. The thought that anyone who writes so badly could be let loose on a story is alarming, especially if the stories they are after are "red-hot" and "value-based". I've also always had a thing about campfires, never having liked ghost stories, or singing "Blowing in the Wind". But the juxtaposition of "campfire" and "corporate" is truly terrifying.

My own story of my morning's discovery on the internet did not quite end there. As I said, it ended with a baby's bib. I stumbled across a website selling storytelling merchandise. There are mugs, mousemats and flying discs advertising the storytelling website there is even a storyteller baby's bib, for just $6.99. It must be a universal truth that when a management fad crops up on babies' bibs, it is a sign that the end is near. I have just searched the web for "six sigma" and "babies' bibs", and could find nothing, which suggests this one still has time to run.

Harvard Business Review on storytelling

Unfortunately, this dismissive ending to my story on storytelling has a contradictory postscript, made necessary by the Harvard Business Review. The May issue contains a shockingly sensible article on the subject, written by Stephen Denning, who used to be head of knowledge management at the World Bank and has now remodelled himself as a storytelling guru.

He tells the tale of how he had been trying to get colleagues at the Bank to accept knowledge management. They had taken no notice of his logical Powerpoint presentation. He then told a 150-word story about a health worker in Zambia, and suddenly the World Bank started to see the point of just how powerful sharing information can be.

He was so pleased with the success of this that he went to a convention at the International Storytelling Center, only to be told by a master storyteller that his story was not worthy of the name. There was no plot and no character development, no proper telling at all. Instead of being repentant, Denning knew his version was better.

He knew that a fancy story would have gone down badly with the World Bank people, who (like most busy people in companies) want to get the point in seconds, not meandering minutes. The minimalist story was far better.

Denning argues that what was true for him is true generally: a short, well-judged story will often reach places dry analysis cannot. He is quite right. And if this is what storytelling means, then I'm right behind it.

The difference, I suppose, is that I would not call this storytelling. I would simply call it giving a relevant example. The power of an example is glaringly obvious, and is something we all know instinctively. A good example may make something easier to understand, and easier to remember. The trouble is "give an example" is a rather flimsy basis for a management fad. Might not look bad on a bib, though.

Bottom Line

Although the kind words about my Harvard Business Review article are appreciated, the truth is that Ms. Kellaway fails to grasp the huge role that storytelling plays in the world of business and politics. The choice for people in business and organizations is not whether to be involved in storytelling - they cannot do otherwise - but rather whether to use storytelling (a) unwittingly and unskillfully or (b) intelligently and skillfully.

She also misses the distinction between managers and leaders.

* Managers spend their time deciding, controlling, planning and directing. The main intellectual tool for this work is analysis.

* Leaders spend their time inspiring, persuading, coaching, and exemplifying. The main communications tool for this work is storytelling.

In stable times, we may get by with simple managers. But in times of rapid and massive transformation, such as our own, organizations need leaders. Hence the huge interest today in organizational storytelling.

As to the suggestion that storytelling is a fad, the fact is that storytelling is fundamental to all nations, societies and cultures, and has been so since time immemorial. The idea that it might simply be simply be a fad that will disappear is at odds with thousand of years of human history. Like or not, admit or not, storytelling is not a fad - it's here to stay. Lucy Kellaway is the FT's management columnist. For the last six years her weekly Monday column has poked fun at management fads and jargon and celebrated the ups and downs of office life.

In her 17 years at the FT Lucy has been energy correspondent, Brussels correspondent, a Lex writer, and an interviewer of business people and celebrities for the Lunch with the FT series. She has won various prizes including the Industrial Society WorkWord Award (twice) and the Wincott Young Financial Journalist Award. Her book, Sense and Nonsense in the Office, was published by FT Prentice Hall in 1999.

Born in London in 1959, Lucy graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. She is married to David Goodhart, founder and editor of Prospect, the current affairs magazine. They have four children. Email Lucy Kellaway at

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