Why do some business storytelling efforts fail spectacularly? I hear sponsors of some of these failed attempts (they’re brave enough to call us in after their bad experience) saying, “storytelling just didn’t suit our culture” or “we just didn’t click with the person we brought in to help us.” I suspect these are merely superficial explanations.
The storytelling spectrum is a simple but useful idea I learnt from my friend and storytelling expert Mary Alice Arthur. Imagine a spectrum of storytelling. At one end is Big ‘S’ Storytelling which includes those beautifully crafted stories we see in movies, novels, plays and even the latest Playstation games. Big ‘S’ Storytellers understand plot structures, character development, scene design and a myriad of other storytelling principles and practices. At the other end of the spectrum is Small ‘s’ Storytelling where we find the stories we tell on a daily basis in conversations, anecdotes, recounts and examples.
We’ve focussed our attention on the Small ‘s’ end of the spectrum (the anecdotes, the real life experiences) and have inched our way toward the Big ‘S’ end, but not too far for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. There’s lots to learn from the Big ‘S’ end but business people don’t need to be screenwriters or playwrights. Putting too much storytelling craft in how you communicate can lead you to fall into an even bigger trap. And this trap is similar to one discovered in robotics in the 70s.
In 1970 a Japanese robotics researcher, Mashahiro Mori, noticed that as he made his robots more humanlike their attractiveness increased, but only to a point. After that they became creepy. It was only when it was impossible to tell the robot from the human did they become attractive again. Mori called this dip in comfort levels (Shinwakan) the Uncanny Valley.
Source: Crossing the uncanny valley, The Economist, Nov 18th 2010.
We witnessed the impact of the Uncanny Valley at the movie theatres in 2004. Pixar released The Incredibles at the same time Warner Bros. released The Polar Express. The Polar Express used live action performance capture techniques to make almost humanlike animated characters with an eerie result; not what you want for a Christmas tale. The Incredibles were clearly animations and it became a box office hit.
There is something like an Uncanny Valley of Business Storytelling. We can improve our storytelling with techniques applied from the wealth of storytelling techniques used by the best screenwriters, playwrights and novelists, but only to a point. After that business storytelling drop into an Uncanny Valley. At the bottom of the valley the storyteller’s efforts seem artificial, forced and clumsy. Sometimes this happens when people in the organisation believe they need to understand sophisticated plot structures, vocalisation techniques and beats and scenes to apply storytelling. Frankly, I think you can love storytelling too much and try too hard. Sometimes a storytelling professional believes that to be a real storyteller you need to be a performance storyteller. This often results in the storytelling voice. You know that one that sounds like the person has just started a children’s story with Once Upon a Time. Again the result is the Uncanny Valley.
Yes, you can learn a lot from Big ‘S’ Storytelling but it’s folly to try apply too much. In the end so much can be achieved just helping people to be mindful of their experiences and the experiences of the people around them and work out what these experiences mean. With this understanding recounting an experience can be a powerful illustration of what you believe is important. And told as a story on the gentle hills above the valley will mean people with remember it and maybe even be inspired to take action.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: