” “Why storytelling?”
“Simple: nothing else works.”
That was the rudimentary answer that I gave to cynical left-brained managers back in the 1990s and early 2000s when I was introducing them to the power of leadership storytelling. Slides leave listeners dazed. Prose remains unread. Reasons don’t change behavior. When it comes to inspiring people to embrace some strange new change in behavior, storytelling isn’t just better than the other tools. It’s the only thing that works.
A more scientific answer can be found in Brian Boyd’s wonderful book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, (Harvard University Press, 2009)
This elegantly written book assembles a mass of scientific evidence, drawing on evolutionary theory, ethology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, game theory, anthropology, economics, neurophysiology, analytic and experimental philosophy, epistemology and psychology, and shows–scientifically–why storytelling is so important.
The eclipse of storytelling in the 20th Century
Anthropologists always knew that storytelling is a universal feature of every country and every culture, even if, for most of the 20th Century, storytelling got very little respect. As so-called scientific approaches to life became dominant, mechanistic, machine-like thinking was everywhere triumphant. Analysis was king. Narrative was seen as either infantile or trivial.
The phenomenon didn’t just affect storytelling. In retrospect, the 20th Century can be seen as a giant experiment by the human race to find out what could be accomplished if organizations treated people as things and communicated to them in abstractions, numbers and analysis, rather than through people-friendly communications such as stories.
Employees became “human resources” to be mined, rather than people to be minded. Customers became “demand”, or “consumers” or “eyeballs”, to be manipulated, rather than living, feeling human beings to be delighted. Storytelling was only one of many elements that suffered “collateral damage.”
The whole experiment can be seen as a success to the extent that the material standard of living of a proportion of the world’s population for a time improved. But the experiment was an abysmal failure in most other respects. It made human beings people miserable. And organizations steadily became less and less productive, as the need for innovation grew.
In any event, the effort to suppress storytelling was unsuccessful: storytelling, though despised, lived on in the cracks and crevices of society—in the cafeterias, the corridors, around water-coolers, in bars and restaurants, living rooms and bedrooms. Throughout the 20th Century, storytelling got little respect, but it could not be suppressed. It turned out to be central characteristic of being human.
It also turned out that storytelling was a central component of leadership. Want to understand why Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama became national leaders? A big part of it lay in their ability to tell effective leadership stories.
Now, the ongoing reinvention of management to transform workplaces from the boring, sterile, dispiriting cubicles of the 20th Century into the lively centers of inspiration and creativity that are needed for the Creative Economy of the 21st Century has storytelling at its core.
Why stories are so powerful
Boyd explains what is it about the apparently frivolous activity of storytelling that makes it so powerful. He helps us see why storytelling is central to innovation, the critical performance dimension of 21st Century organizations: stories are a kind of cognitive play, a stimulus and training for a lively mind.”