Jonathan Gottschall, a literary scholar, has just written a piece for Fast Company called Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon and in the process has set back the field of business storytelling with his emphasis on fictitious stories.
I can imagine that being a literary scholar gets Jonathan entwined in myths and legends and literary works to a point where it must be hard for him to see the real life stories told every moment of every day in a company. A good business storyteller recounts things that have happened to them or tells the stories they hear about in their company or other companies, and always for a business purpose. Only then should they throw in one or two fictitious tales. For me it’s all about understanding the difference between Big ‘S’ (fictitious, crafted, marketing) and little ‘s’ (real-life, experiences, anecdotes) stories. Jonathan is focussed on Big ‘S’ storytelling. Big ‘S’ should be left for Hollywood. Successful business people are more effective telling little ‘s’ stories.
The simple fact is, executives feel more comfortable with little ‘s’ stories and consequently more likely to tell them. I met a CEO the other night at a fund raising dinner. He told me he went to New York to take part in a business storytelling session conducted by actors and everyone had to act out their story. He said it was a painful experience. “I felt like an idiot, it just wasn’t my thing.” I shared the Big ‘S’ vs little ‘s’ idea and the relief on his face was instant. I said, “Now you have to get good at noticing stories and retelling them.” You only get the benefits of business storytelling if leaders are telling stories.
I agree with Jonathan’s point that we need to base business storytelling on a foundation of research. There is defintely a lack of story-specific research being done and applied. But if you dig you will find all sorts of gems like this one we wrote about on how our brains sync when we listen to a story. The research is emerging. Pratitioners need to seek it out and apply the findings.
Executives are wary of made up stories. They duck for cover when you mention fairytales, myths or legends. Most hate the idea of writing their story or acting out a story. It just smacks of hippy idealism and a big waste of time. Jonathan triggers all these stereotypes turning the ultimate weapon into a toothless tiger.