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Well, exceptionally trained professionals working with organizational story for several decades are having problems with the distinctions made here between story and narrative. I've been curating their blog posts and comments at
John, while I have enjoyed your writings in the past and appreciate your thinking on stories, I get what you are trying to do here I think. Yet at the same time, I question whether the distinction between stories and narrative really add up. I welcome a further discussion. Here are my thoughts after decades of working with organizational stories: If we consider stories as only being about a beginning-middle-end structure, then they are self-contained. However, structure is only a small part of stories. In fact, stories are dynamic events, not discrete objects. Treating stories as objects leads to this kind of odd distinction being made between stories and narratives. In truth, the grand ‘narrative’ discussed here is made up of hundreds or thousands of stories that are always fluid and in motion. They work dynamically on people sometimes long after the telling. As performances, as events, story’s beginnings and ends are ephemeral as folklorists and anthropologists have recognized for decades. Stories when told orally are co-created experiences and not passively consumed – and all great storytellers know that. They also know that stories are always about the other person, not themselves or other people – regardless if a personal story is being shared. That is the biggest lesson businesses need to learn. Stories hold different problem solving structures within them. Once hearing a story, the choices people make about actions to take are always up to them. This is the craft of storytelling versus messaging – another lesson businesses need to learn. Stories are guides – actions are up to the listener. So the distinction here between stories and narratives is again problematic. I would rather the discussion focus on getting businesses to understand the powerful dynamics of storytelling rather than on distinctions that may create more confusion. Narratives as movements are made up of a collection of stories, beliefs, and visions of the future that galvanize people. But folks do not relate to ‘narratives’ in this sense without having stories to connect to that are relevant to them personally. People will live and die for their stories. The aggregate of stories you are naming as a narrative are more aptly called ‘movements’ as you wrote. This is because they move people to action based on what is being said that they can connect their own person stories to, and the vision that is present. Again, calling these movements ‘narratives’ is kind of limiting and I’m not sure really expands our understanding of the dynamics going on. I don’t think that narratives overcome cognitive biases any better than stories do. In my decades of org story experience and all the research I’ve read, stories are the ultimate and best vehicle for overcoming cognitive biases. But again, this is all based on stories being understood as dynamic events and not as objects. Authenticity, trust, engagement all happen through story sharing that over time eventually generates what is being called here a grand ‘narrative’. There is nothing inherently good in narratives just because one focuses on them. There are plenty of dysfunctional and debilitating ‘narratives’/cultures floating around out there. Grand narratives/cultures are not cooked up in some executive meeting – cultures emerge through time as people share stories, walk the talk, and live their beliefs. That culture – hopefully one that is positive and enlivens people -- is what companies can be known for. And that is the real work story professionals and businesses need to get done together.
Hi Gary -- great post! And very refreshing. I liked it so much I brought it into my curated content on business storytelling, and then posted in to my social media accounts. You can see it here at Thank you and keep writing such great stuff!
What an amazing post John. Thank you so much for writing such a critical piece. When I coach leaders/businesses in storytelling (for influence, branding, marketing), I have to deal with this issue head on in the beginning. No one wants to share their vulnerabilities. My response is much like yours -- that trust is built when vulnerabilities are present. Besides, you can't have a compelling story without being vulnerable, sharing about the problems you get yourself into, and lessons learned! Most people are too afraid of sounding arrogant, not wanting to share their stories. But of course the listener is craving those stories from a business or leader. Because of the protective attitudes you mentioned in your article, I end up spending a lot of time teaching people how to tell their personal & business stories -- where their vulnerabilities are present and without sounding arrogant. Unfortunately, I run into too many leaders whose egos are either too big, or their fears to great, to consider mastering story sharing as a path to building greater trust, influence, and the like. The business and personal opportunities they miss are boundless. Now sharing stories is not the answer to everything. And storytelling is not as simple as people tend think. Yet I do feel that storytelling can be a very powerful dynamic in building trust in today's changing and complex world. I'd love to hear your thoughts and the thoughts of others on this. Many thanks.
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Jul 28, 2011