Corporate Story Competence and Application: An Assessment

Story has been around for a long time

“There have been stories and messages delivered across different media ever since Cro-Magnon man figured out that mineral pigments like iron oxide and black manganese could be applied to the sides of rocks and caves. Whether chronicling life, communicating with others, or creating an inspirational image, there were stories being told”.

“For well over 100,000 years before written language, humans communicated all key information, histories, beliefs, and attitudes through oral storytelling AND archived (stored/remembered) all of that information in story form in human memory. 100,000 years of relying on story architecture as our primary storage and communications system has evolutionarily rewired human brains. We are all now born hardwired to think, to make sense, and to understand through story structure and by using specific story elements”

Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School rightly points out that we find meaning in stories and narratives, not data. He refers to us as possessing a ‘fiction impulse’. And philosopher A. C. Grayling has said: “Throughout human history story-telling has been a central means of informing people about possibilities beyond their personal sphere, and inviting them to understand those possibilities better”

Story touches the whole person

Our lives are stories, and filled with stories. We are immersed in story from womb to tomb, cradle to grave, sperm to worm, ancestry to after-life. We’re touched by story emotionally, socially, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Story connects us to our higher and deeper selves, and to others. It gives meaning, provides context, frees our imagination and creativity.
“Stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition”

Research shows that story is the way to establish rapport, engage and mobilise the disengaged; that listeners suspend disbelief, reality-testing and counter-argument during the telling; that people prefer reaching their own insights, and that well-told stories stick in the memory and stimulate big conversations and action. People respond far better to stories than they do to facts, figures, statistics, bar charts, bullet point presentations, jargon and business-speak. When a story is told we enter what psychologists term ‘narrative transport’. And “When we have made an experience into a story we have transformed it–made sense of it, transmuted experience, domesticated the chaos”.6 Facts tell but stories ‘sell’. They are catalysts to learning and improved performance.

Story plays a role in the development of important life skills – emotional intelligence, mindfulness, imagination. Jon Kabat Zinn, pioneer of mindfulness in the medical world and neuroscience, in a recent radio interview7 pointed out that “Those trained in mindfulness/awareness light up the narrative network in the medial region of the prefrontal cortex and harmonise with the experiential network grounded in the body”.
Jung wrote: “It is only when the human mind actively brings forth from within itself the full powers of disciplined imagination and archetypal insight that the deeper reality of the world emerges”. And the title of an article by PJ Manney needs no further explanation: Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy.

We relate emotionally to metaphor words in stories. Researchers at Emory University found for example that “when subjects read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active”.

We live and breathe story. And as “Novelist Edmund White once wrote, “When a person dies, a library is burned”

It’s natural. It happens without striving.

“There was a man living by the seashore who loved seagulls. Every morning he went down to the sea to roam with the seagulls. More birds came to him than could be counted in hundreds. His father said to him one day: I hear the seagulls all come roaming with you – bring me some to play with. Next day, when he went to the sea, the seagulls danced above him and would not come down”.

Small wonder that business is fast latching on to the power of story
So, not surprisingly, the story movement in business has really taken off. Hundreds of tertiary educational institutions offer programmes with story modules, a growing number of books on the subject are being published, many more businesses want to use story in their internal and external communications. Jamie Smart of Salad Limited, UK, international NLP practitioner and teacher says, “Stories are the ultimate covert communications technique”.Alas, not all use story ethically. Writer Dan McKinnon points out that ‘A halo has to fall only a few inches to be a noose’. Stories can choke, strangle us or free us, open up new possibilities. How we use them is important. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes has said, “Most (stories) are not used as simple entertainment …. (but) used in many different ways; to teach, correct errors, lighten, assist transformation, heal wounds, re-create memory”.

With wrong intention, tactlessness or deliberate misuse we can tell to win, impose, manipulate, serve self, and we lose credibility. We rob listeners of their freedom to interpret.

Far better that our stories be non-directive, open, honest, even show vulnerability. Then real sharing happens. Dialogue takes place. Snowden believes that “this is key to micro-narrative approaches, creating multiple interaction between many people and their stories”.

And too few realise the full potential of story to improve every part of their business. Narrative has a key role to play in every aspect of business – every department, every business process, in our relating to suppliers, stakeholders, customers. In brand enhancement, knowledge management, training, making sense of issues and challenges, communication, sales connections, scenario construction, change/transition endeavours, presentations, qualitative research.

Far too few understand, accept, internalise and apply this correctly in the new age of story. We’ve come to realise this during our consulting, training and coaching work using anecdote circles, appreciative inquiries, projective techniques, metaphor elicitation with clients and potential clients. Hence our development of this assessment instrument.

Using the Assessment

In these notes and within the assessment instrument, we have generally (in order to avoid tortuous and complicated descriptions) used ‘Story’ an all-embracing term that covers narrative, metaphor, personal anecdote; and biographical, historical, mythological, metaphorical, wisdom stories; past, present, future stories; fact, fiction. Nor have we taken pains to distinguish between oral and written stories. These distinctions are of course necessary in certain situations – but should not blur the principle that what matters more than categorisation or ‘academic accuracy’ is the integrity and appropriateness of the use of story. The assessment is in two parts:

  • Story competence consistently displayed
  • Story application deeply understood and used throughout the business

It reveals the organisations’ strengths, weaknesses and opportunities – in the area of using story in order to advance corporate goals. And its use spawns a number of corporate outcome-measures including level of competence (here we have also developed a further set of story competencies with related behaviour indicators for the individual), brand reputation impact, value of sense-making responses, training effectiveness improvement, development of emotional and social intelligence skills, assertiveness………..(The assessment is best completed in the presence of an experienced business story practitioner, so that the nuances and niceties of each of the questions is well understood before being answered).

Terms of usage

We hope that the diagnostic is used widely and wisely, adds to the professionalism of business story practitioners everywhere, and promotes and advances the effective and ethical use of story within organisations. Proper use of the assessment and monitoring takes place within this business scorecard framework:

Hits: 76