Imagine a story

I’ve been interested in storytelling as a business tool since I attended a seminar on knowledge management about 15 years ago. One of the speakers was Dave Snowden, who was then head of knowledge management at IBM. Snowden spoke about storytelling as “an old skill in a new context” with specific applications for improving knowledge management. Knowledge management had become a big issue in the 1990s in response to a growing recognition that intellectual capital and other intangibles were rapidly becoming core organisational assets.

But knowledge management systems were often complex and inflexible, and Snowden was among a group of practitioners who recognized that stories can convey complex meanings across organisations, cultures and even language barriers much more effectively than databases and search strings. Once they started looking it was apparent that organisations were already full of stories. There were stories about how the boss got her job, why the guy in accounts resigned, the state of the food in the canteen, last year’s office party and so on. And whether these stories were official or unofficial, flattering or rude, true or false, fragmentary or purposeful, they were important to the people who shared them, and therefore to the organisation as a whole.

Meanwhile, another knowledge management professional, Steve Denning, was pursuing a similar path to Dave Snowden, but in the World Bank. Denning was using storytelling specifically to convey the potential benefits of a relatively new digital knowledge management system called the World Wide Web. One story in particular led to a big increase in the success Denning was having in persuading the Bank’s leadership about the value of the web, and that led him to analyze the story’s attributes. He went on to develop a theory about ‘springboard stories’ and in 2001 published The Springboard: How storytelling ignites action in knowledge-era organisations.

In January 2002, soon after the book came out, Denning gave a talk on storytelling at the Royal Society of Arts in London, where I was Head of Marketing and Communications. I was intrigued by what he said, because at that time we were starting to think about a big anniversary that the RSA was due to celebrate in 2004, and I thought a ‘springboard’ story would be a great way to engage the members, or Fellows as they’re known, with the anniversary events.

But I was also intrigued by the way he challenged the widely-held view that storytelling is the opposite of professional business communication. He said that “if somebody had asked me five years ago, ‘What’s important in knowledge?’ I’d have said that knowledge is solid and objective and direct and abstract and analytic. And if somebody has asked me about storytelling I would have said: “Storytelling? That’s nebulous and subjective and indirect and unscientific and basically not worth a damn.” Well, over the next five years, I found I had to unlearn most of what I was sure that I knew.”

In 2007 Hollywood producer Peter Guber also turned his attention to using stories for business purposes, writing an article for Harvard Business Review on The Four Truths of the Storyteller“An effective CEO,” Guber wrote, “uses an emotional narrative about the company’s mission to attract investors and partners, to set lofty goals, and to inspire employees. Sometimes, a well-crafted story can even transform a seemingly hopeless situation into an unexpected triumph.”

He then shares a story about how he used a story to persuade Fidel Castro, no less, to allow his film crew to shoot some footage underwater in Havana harbour. This prompted Guber to think about how “storytelling can be used to get people’s help carrying out your goals and ultimately to inspire business success”. He subsequently published Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. You can hear in the book’s title, and in the preceding quotes that Guber’s concept of the value of stories in a business setting is highly instrumental. In fact, his book jacket carries an endorsement from former US President Bill Clinton, which reads “Peter Guber masterfully demonstrates that telling purposeful stories is the best way to persuade, motivate and convince who you want to do what you need”.

In the social era that we now inhabit, storytelling is much more about collaboration than coercion (not to say that Guber – or Clinton, for that matter – advocated coercion). It is an essential tool for those who seek to create a synthesis of social purpose, innovation, and economic growth.


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