My daughter and I recently watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show and our DVD has the option to play the audience participation sound track while you watch the movie. It brought back fond memories from the early eighties going to screenings where we would take our rice, water pistols, confetti and newspapers and for every line in the movie we would call out an irreverent line or two. Great fun.
On re-watching the movie you can’t help noticing just how flimsy it is: weak plot, poor acting, clumsy directing. When it was first released it was roundly panned by the audiences and critics alike. But then something happened. People started having fun with it and audience participation emerged and next thing you know you have a cult classic.
I’m willing to bet that one of the reasons why audience participation emerged is that the Rocky Horror Picture Show is an imperfect story and therefore leaves space for the audience to add in their own content. Compare this with a beautifully crafted movie such as Million Dollar Baby. Can you imagine audience participation happening? OK, that’s not a fair comparison so think about some musicals: Chicago, Westside Story, Hairspray. Again the only participation here is singing along to the songs.
Crafting perfect stories is unlikely to get the participation you were hoping for in your business. I’m finding comms departments particular obsessed with the perfect story approach. Comms folk have been in the business of crafting and disseminating company messages and in most cases they are in broadcast mode. So when they encounter storytelling they are often preoccupied with learning how to tell the best story. What are the features of a great story? How do we help our leader tell a compelling story? How will we hook our audience and engage them emotionally? All good questions but it’s only applying one approach to story work and I can guarantee if you spend too much effort crafting the perfect story your audience wont participate in the conversation you are hoping they might have. You will have created a Million Dollar Baby that no one wants to mess with.
Contrast the perfect story approach with what happened in one of our leadership programs. We collect 100 stories from staff of good and bad leadership. Verbatim stories: just the way they spoke them. The workshop participants have to decide which story is most significant in terms of staff engagement. Two stories bubble to the surface. Both stories are anaemic in story terms. The one they chose is about a woman who whenever she goes to her manager’s office he’s working on his computer, very focussed on his computer screen. But when he sees her he stops what he is doing, comes over to the table in the middle of the room, sits down and engages her like that’s the only thing on his mind. She finishes the story by saying that she reeeally appreciates it and no other managers do it in the company. That story generates heaps of discussion but more importantly we see the conversation triggering new behaviours in the organisation. The story is not pretty. It’s not perfect. But it has a lasting impact.
So in business story work let’s not get so obsessed with the perfect story. Let’s leave that to the Aaron Sorkins and Clint Eastwoods of this world. In business story work we need to trigger conversations that reveal new stories and really engage our people in storytelling.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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: