When folks in business circles extol the virtues of ‘storytelling,’ they generally refer to the impact that a well-told story can have on an audience. The praise of story generally goes something like this:
‘Storytelling is the single best tool we have to transfer our ideas to another person. Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire.’ (Carmine Gallo on Inc.)
I certainly won’t argue with that because, frankly, it’s true. It also misses about 90 percent of the power storytelling has to connect, build community, and bring greater alignment to teams, companies, and families.
The key lies in distinguishing between ‘story’ as a product and ‘storytelling’ as a process.
Recently, I had the chance to take a class with the wonderful Doug Lipman. If you’ve ever searched for books about the art of performance storytelling, you’ve probably seen some of his work. He gets at the distinction through a simple metaphor:
Imagine a rubber duck race at a county fair. There are only three rules:
Each one of these corresponds to a different way of creating influence.
In the first instance, picking up the duck would be the equivalent of fear-based or brute force authoritarian influence: you simply move your subject without regard for its individuality or rights.
Blowing on the duck is the equivalent of telling it a story that directly influences its opinion or way of seeing the world. Blowing on the duck, just like telling a single person a story, only influences one duck.
Making waves corresponds to engaging in a storytelling process. The process works subtly to change the direction not just of a single duck, but also, through ripple effects, the entire duck pond!
Story exerts direct influence (think ‘propaganda’ or ‘that famous 1984 Mac Commercial). Storytelling has the power to influence the entire culture by exercising and reinforcing human values.
I think of it like an iceberg. The top, the most visible part of the iceberg is what we generally think of when we think of ‘story.’ It’s a tactical or strategic communication tool. At this level, we deploy story as a functional device.
Look closer, however, and we see that 90% of storytelling’s power lies beneath the surface. The process of discovering, crafting, sharing, and hearing stories teaches and reinforces core values that have been integral to human societies since we started banding together in tribes.
These values include compassion, connection, deep listening, and inclusion.
The two different ways of treating story can have deep impact not only on an organization’s marketing and communications, but also on its strategy and internal culture. For an example of what this looks like in the real world, check out this case study about two organizations that participated in a training with me last year.
As ‘storytelling’ and even the word ‘story’ continues to saturate brand-speak and marketing seminars, it’s powerful to think not just about the story we tell, but also about the process we used to get there. What values are embedded in that process and are those values consistent with whom you’d like to be as an individual, a business, or a team?
What would it look like to embrace storytelling as a deep, transformational process that stretches across all levels of your organization?
In other words, what kind of change becomes possible when we create waves instead of just blowing or using brute force?
I believe that it's the kind of change that addresses deep needs not just within our organizations, but also in our world at large. For more on what that looks like, check out this brief article!
The awareness of storytelling as a deep process invites us to think more deeply about not just the stories we tell, but how we find, craft, and tell them. Before you share your next story or shoehorn something into a 'hero's journey' format, take a moment to examine the process you're using: what values does it reflect, promote, and reinforce? And are those the values you wish to promote?
Let me know how it goes!