The Power of Stories in the Corporate Environment

Stories and the way we tell them have provided insights into our individual and cultural values since we began telling them. In stories we find our history, our future dreams and our visions.

Stories can present to the world our ideals and our motivations. If we know clearly what stories are being told about our projects, our organisations, our leaders then we can understand past events and organise future strategies more effectively.

Campaign stories, success stories, life stories, the corporate history, motivational stories, problem solving stories, inspirational stores - there are so many useful story forms that businesses and corporations can access and utilise.

In a paper entitled ‘Organizational Story and Storytelling: A Critical Review’ in the Journal of Organizational Change, 1996, Mary E.Boyce, Professor, Dept. of Management & Business, Whitehead College, University of Redlands, California said,

‘Shared storytelling has a number of applications that warrant consideration by organisational members, managers, and practitioners.

These are:
(a) expressing the organisational experience of members or clients;
(b) confirming the shared experiences and shared meaning of organisational members and groups within the organisation;
(c) orienting and socialising new organisational members;
(d) amending and altering the organisational reality;
(e) developing, sharpening, and renewing the sense of purpose held by organisational members;
(f) preparing a group (or groups) for planning, implementing plans, and decision making in line with shared purposes; and
(g) co-creating vision and strategy.’

The key to understanding stories can be found in the narrative structure - character, setting, problem and resolution. Just about all stories, true or fictional, can be interpreted in this way. How individual storytellers construct and tell their stories by including and excluding different characters, describing a setting, having characters interact, creating a problem and then resolving that problem tells us as much about the storyteller/s as it does about the components of the narrative.

Collecting project stories is an effective way of evaluating projects especially with regard to the human elements such as motivation and commitment of project teams. This process can bring submerged issues to the surface allowing new corporate learning.

Retelling the stories of shared experiences whether pleasant or painful is also an effective way to build and maintain relationships. Often these stories are written down and published or turned into jokes or anecdotes or even encapsulated in logos, symbols and icons. The Bell Telephone image of the linesman rejoining the phone line in the snow storm is a good example of a story that has so captured the imagination and motivation of a company that it has endured and achieved mythological status. It not only continues to motivate Bell employees but probably everyone who views it subconsciously creates their own version of the story imagining what it would be like to be the character in that storm setting. Touchstone stories like this one can inform an organisation’s vision, motivation, commitment and processes.

Just as important however, are the informal stories that are being told about an organisation by customers and staff. The emotion being expressed in these stories can tell so much.

One of the skills of the professional storyteller is to model how to tell a story well. A good storyteller will:

- describe and bring characters alive
- provide enough detail of a setting so listeners/readers can imagine themselves there
- include emotions, problems, challenges and dreams
- tie up loose ends so that the stories feel resolved for the listener or reader.

Sometimes however modelling is not enough to overcome culturalisation about not being creative or expressive that is so common in society today. So a storyteller comes equipped with a range of tools for establishing safety and for helping contributors to access their stories. The most important of these is being a good active, acknowledging listener. Telling stories under these conditions becomes an enjoyable and empowering experience for the participant. Enabling these stories to become published, distributed and celebrated provides valuable lessons and organisational resources for communities and corporations.

Storytelling is also an effective way to present complex reports for planning and decision making. Stories are like road maps. They provide a way of codifying information at the level of complexity necessary for the specific journey or scenario. They are infinitely flexible and adaptable to the need at hand. Findings can be encapsulated into the narrative form and presented in entertaining and thought provocative ways to planners and decision makers.

Present a problem or a set of results in an appropriate story form and it allows the listener or reader to leave the logical left hand brain in neutral for a while and go off on a creative right hand brain exploration of the possibilities. What the storyteller understands is what is an appropriate story for a particular audience and how to tell it so they can relax, suspend judgement and creatively enjoy the ride.

Stories reveal. Stories motivate. Stories bind individuals into teams. Stories create solutions.

Daryll Bellingham © 2001


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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
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All contents copyright © 2001, Daryll Bellingham. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10th July,2002
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