The power of stories

I was sad to hear of the recent death of the great children’s storyteller and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Sendak’s best known work, Where the Wild Things Are, was as ground breaking as it was well-loved, elucidating the darker sides of children’s emotions through the simple fantasy of ‘Max’ and his travels to the ‘land of the wild things’.

Human beings have been telling each other stories for a long time. We tell stories to package information, to bond, to build shared culture, to inspire and, as in Sendak’s masterpiece, to illustrate deep meaning through metaphor. The epic poem Beowulf, for example, served to highlight the Anglo-Saxon values of loyalty between warriors and their Lord. It may also have contained deeper metaphors for a society making the transition from paganism to Christianity. In more recent culture, the real-life story of Rosa Parks and her defiance of racial segregation in Alabama was an inspiration to the civil rights movement. It also helped to form and solidify the movement’s predominant culture of non-violence.

After millennia of sharing stories it is not entirely fanciful to imagine that we have developed neural pathways specifically to absorb information and emotions presented in story form. Research by Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan in the 1980s gave one group of participants a story of an atypical benefits claimant followed by real data on typical claimants whilst another group was simply given the story. The result of this experiment (validated by later trials) showed that the atypical story stuck and the hard data was largely ignored. It seems that our brain values narratives more than cold facts.

Today, the value and impact of storytelling for organisations is widely recognised. Commercial organisations use stories in advertising to drive brand loyalty and to communicate corporate and product values. Not-for-profit organisations also use stories to communicate their impact in the world. Stories should not just be reserved for external communications however; they should also be used to inspire staff and volunteers and to communicate an organisation’s culture.

Yesterday I visited Rob Trimble, CEO at the Bromley by Bow Centre and fellow Bank of America Awards leadership trainee. Whilst showing me around the oasis of calm and loveliness that is the Bromley by Bow Centre, we bumped into Mandy who told me how she had first come to the centre as an isolated single mum. From her first day she found a place where she could be of use, where she was valued and where she could learn and develop. Fast forward 21 years and she is now a service manager at Bromley by Bow. Her story, related with honesty and conviction, was a perfect example of how a narrative can encapsulate what an organisation is at its best, how people operate within it, and the motivators behind people’s engagement.

Just as stories have the power to unite and inspire, they can equally serve negative functions. Consider the organisation with ‘Supporting employees’ as a core value but where new staff hear how ‘Jean’ was treated badly by management as they stand at the water cooler. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that the organisation’s message and the stories of staff are aligned and consistent.

If you’re looking to use more storytelling in your organisation I can highly recommend Dan Goodman’s book ‘Storytelling as best Practice’. It’s a great starting point and also a good resource for further reading – as is Dan’s website at www.thegoodmancenter.com.

In the pressure to deliver facts for funders and structures for our organisations it’s easy to overlook the power of stories – but we do so at our peril.