Cool Story Bro. I’m feeling mildly guilty at the moment. I might have been a little bit over sceptical and grumpily dismissive of the heartwarming stories told at conference. I know, I sound like a cold-blooded reptile, but I’ll let you decide.
For the after lunch slot two highly respected leaders took to the stage and told their ‘stories’. Unfortunately, they were basically the same story (despite the black and white photos taken 150 miles apart over 70 years) , which is where it all went wrong for me.
Heroic individual saves a person in distress. I might have been able to ‘suspend reality’ and enjoy a single heartwarming story. However, listening to the same thing back to back felt a bit contrived, and snuffed out my Disney approved, ‘I Believe’ sensor. Here goes with the aggregated version;
- Doris/George (insert names as appropriate) is in their 80’s and has lived a long and happy life,
- They had a fulfilling job, a neat home, raised a family and were solid members of their community,
- Even during tough times they were resilient and self-reliant, having little involvement with public services (this is starting to sound like a Billy Bragg song),
- Then, 5 years ago, Doris/George’s partner died,
- Doris/George starts to go downhill. They become isolated, lonely, increasingly unwell and “bit of a burden on public services”,
- You know this part of the story… Doris/George has repeat visits to the Accident and Emergency Department, involvement from Social Services etc, etc,
- Enter the unassuming heroine from somewhere in public services (usually the voluntary sector) who battles against the ‘system’ and does something to change Doris/Georges’s life,
- Doris/George is now a ‘ninja’ (stalwart) at the local Knitting Nannas / Men’s Sheds Club and is predicted to live independently until 105 years old,
- And the moral of the story?
- Small actions by dedicated public servants, prepared to be innovative, and operate outside of the system can change people’s lives,
- Everyone is inspired to go away and make a difference.
Pass the ‘Cool Story Bro’ Hat. If you’re a follower of meme’s you’ll recognise ‘Cool Story Bro’ as an insult or sarcastic response used to dismiss a very long or ‘off the point’ story. In my opinion it can be equally useful in the world of organisation storytelling, especially if we can wear hats!
The fact that the conference stories were told so closely together did not help with my scepticism. I’m sure these were well-intentioned actions to get a message across, using ‘story’ as the method.
However, a few things rattling around my head made me question the approach. Specifically, how do you avoid ‘Silver Bullet Syndrome’ in organisational storytelling and come across as credible?
Sliver Bullet Syndrome and Organisational Story Telling. This is going to sound really bad, but it felt like the stories I heard at the conference were a good illustration of; Stage 8 of the Life-cycle of a Silver Bullet – Standardisation and Superficial Copying.
Storytelling, done properly, is a really powerful and effective way of sharing knowledge and shaping the way people behave in organisations, and wider society – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It’s not just another new ‘business tool’.
Just to reinforce my suspicion that organisational storytelling has become ‘industrialised’, this week I received yet another invite to a Storytelling Course. It was giving me the chance to “…set sail towards a more engaging and succinct narrative…to move beyond data, ‘facts’ and information…to create a shared vision of success that will, inspire, unite and motivate colleagues.” I’m not making this up. It was all neatly compressed into a day long course for the meagre sum of £750 (plus VAT).
Really? That does smell a bit like ‘Standardisation and Superficial Copying’ to me. I reckon I would take a bit more than a day long course to get me ‘setting sail’ as an expert storyteller.
My preferred approach to becoming proficient at something is to take time to understand, and practice…. lots of practice! A good starting point is to read things that clearly explain the theory and gives pointers on the practice.
With that in mind I’d strongly suggest reading this by Dave Snowden; Narrative Patterns, the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations.
I read it first a few years ago and I’m now seriously looking at it again; in a lot of detail. Concepts like Anti Stories and the differences between Fables, Myths and Viral Stories all have huge relevance in all aspects of organisational life.
What stands out is that using stories requires diligence and skill that has to be developed over time. A quick fix silver bullet solution is unlikely to help you sound credible or make a difference.
Finally, are there ‘Universal’ Stories? I know I said I felt mildly guilty for my scepticism, and this is part of it. At the core of the conference stories was the idea of someone who falls on hard times, meets someone who helps them and is put back on the straight and narrow.
That might sound familiar, because it is. It’s a plot common to many films and books and had been extensively covered by people like Kurt Vonnegut who talk about the Seven Universal Stories. Maybe the conference speakers have been unlucky enough to have chosen the same universal story to speak about? More about that in the next post.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Storytelling is an effective way of sharing knowledge and shaping behaviour. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.
- Like anything worth doing it’s not a quick fix or silver bullet. It takes time and practice to learn how to do it effectively.
- Get it wrong, and you run the risk of people putting on their ‘Cool Story Bro’ hats (and T-shirts). We are all quite good at spotting duff stories.
An Update. Here’s a indicator that the ‘industrialisation’ of a method might be well underway, and things are approaching ‘Peak Stage 8’ of the Silver Bullet Lifecycle.
Have a look online to see if it is being combined with any of the latest hot subjects or management fads and sold as a half day course. Try searching for: Digital Storytelling, BigData Storytelling or Agile Storytelling…Cool Story Bro!