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Storytelling in Organizations - Book Review

1 October 2010

Dr. Moria Levy

The book titled "Storytelling in Organizations," published in 2004 spans three distinct periods: 2001, marked by a conference featuring four speakers discussing storytelling from their unique perspectives; 2003, during which each speaker reflects on the previous two years; and 2004, when Steve Denning, one of the four, endeavors to summarize the collective insights methodologically. The co-authors of this book are Larry Prusak, a renowned lecturer and consultant in knowledge management known for collaborating with Tom Davenport on various books, most notably "Working Knowledge"; Steve Denning, responsible for knowledge management at the World Bank; John Brown, who led knowledge management at Xerox; and Katalina Groh, a documentary film producer demonstrating the application of storytelling to filmmaking in both the process and the final product, highlighting the significant impact of this combination.


Not surprisingly, the book is crafted in the form of personal stories from the four lecturers. The following summary, while not capturing the whole narrative spirit of the book, effectively encapsulates the core ideas presented:

  • What constitutes a story, and what elements contribute to a compelling narrative?

  • Who possesses the ability to tell a story effectively?

  • When is the opportune moment to share a story?

  • How can one craft a compelling and impactful story?

  • Why is storytelling a valuable practice?


The book, with its accessible writing style, delves into the crucial realm of knowledge management through the lens of storytelling. It is highly recommended!


What constitutes a story, and what elements contribute to a compelling narrative?

A story serves as socially transmitted knowledge, constituting the primary avenue for knowledge development. Social knowledge manifests globally and within organizations, taking various forms such as legends, myths, tales, gossip, eavesdropping, and the exchange of problem-solving strategies.


A knowledge-conveying story accomplishes the following:

  1. Within a specific context.

  2. In an explanatory manner, fostering a deeper understanding of knowledge beyond mere information. This is crucial as it provides the brain with a framework that enhances comprehension.

  3. In an engaging (and not tedious) manner.

  4. On a personal level, both from the narrator's perspective and about a particular case, individual, or a point relevant to the organization.

  5. Sometimes involving judgment or emotions from the narrator.


Within an organization, a story typically resonates with individuals connected to the organization, the organization itself, or the work undertaken. Occasionally, narratives may extend to general life stories, offering insights applicable to the benefit of work and the organization.


Stories function as markers of organizational events, allowing one to glean valuable insights between the lines regarding the nature and content of these narratives. These stories encompass tales of the past, accounts of the present status quo, and narratives envisioning the future. Each category places different emphasis: stories about the past crystallize, those about the present facilitate knowledge transmission, and stories about the future contribute to creating a vision.


Who possesses the ability to tell a story effectively?

Who possesses the ability to tell a story?


According to the book's authors, one of their key assertions is that anyone can evolve into a storyteller. Some individuals affirm that they initially lacked the know-how for storytelling but gradually honed the skill over time.


To cultivate this skill, one must:

  1. Recall the principles of a compelling story, including its key components.

  2. Comprehend the reasons and circumstances under which a story can thrive, thereby enhancing the art of storytelling.

  3. Embrace the narrative and internalize the idea it conveys.

  4. Recognize the success of a story. Merely being aware of a story's success contributes to refining its delivery and bolstering its impact.


Moreover:

Regularly practice the same story. It's worth noting that stories recounted repetitively tend to improve over time.


When is the opportune moment to share a story?

Why and when is it worthwhile to employ storytelling techniques in the workplace?


While the primary purpose of being in the workplace is to engage in work, storytelling can be a valuable supplementary tool in various situations. Consider the following scenarios:

  1. To break formalities and foster a more relaxed atmosphere (entertainment).

  2. As a means of effectively conveying a message.

  3. As a tool for cultivating knowledge communities.

  4. As a means of preserving an organization's existing traditions.


Additionally:

  1. As a tool for managing change.

  2. When the goal is to persuade others.


It is important to note that storytelling should be seen as a complementary tool rather than a standalone method.


A word of caution is warranted: While stories about the past contribute to heritage and tradition, aiding in the reuse of existing knowledge, excessive reliance on such narratives can become a hindrance. The tension between preservation and innovation is a well-known challenge in knowledge management, where the reuse of existing knowledge must be balanced with the imperative to develop new knowledge. Since storytelling is a pivotal knowledge management tool, this tension naturally manifests in this context.


How can one craft a compelling and impactful story?

Several rules contribute to transforming a story into a compelling narrative:

  1. Consider potential listeners and understand their connections.

  2. Prefer a short story, or at least avoid overly lengthy ones, to maintain listener interest.

  3. Craft a sophisticated and non-trivial story. The promotion process involves questioning the story's significance ("So what") until it is refined or deemed unsuitable.**

  4. Ensure the story's authenticity, preferably from the recent past, unless a tradition is established, in which case a narrative from the distant past also holds value. This strengthens credibility and relevance.

  5. Include a message within the story, connecting the analytical part (message) to the narrative.

  6. Conclude the story with something unexpected, humorous, or conclusive (punch line). I prefer stories with happy or non-sad endings.

  7. Present an incomplete and open-ended story, allowing listeners to fill in details and interpret it. A skilled narrator doesn't control the narrative but creates the impression that it can be utilized, even if not entirely accurately, fitting the listener's perspective.

  8. Facilitate the creation of personal associations for each listener.

  9. Select stories that enable individuals to relate to the content from their perspective.

  10. Tell stories in a manner that encourages listeners to develop and continue the narrative within the organization.

  11. Narrate stories in a way that prompts listeners to extrapolate and generalize the tale to other scenarios. This is achievable when the story includes both context and a moral.

  12. Feel at ease with the story and its delivery. Additionally, be attentive to listeners' stories that emerge from hearing your own; where relevant, this can be highly effective.


Prusak disputes electronic storytelling in the digital realm, while Brown emphasizes using knowledge bases, emails, and social networks for sharing stories. Blogs and social networks, although not exhaustive, have become significant components of storytelling, offering effective means of communication despite the limitations in nonverbal cues and partial discourse in talkbacks.


Influences on storytelling methods reveal a lack of change in storytelling between men and women. Regarding ethnic influence, there is no consensus among authors on whether storytelling legacies honestly differ between different groups. Prusak argues that media, especially television, has a more substantial impact on storytelling than influences related to gender or ethnicity.


Why is storytelling a valuable practice?

A story serves as an invaluable tool for effectively conveying a message. When told precisely, it establishes a sense of credibility. It becomes the foundation for building trust, benefiting both the narrator and the individual featured in the story, especially when the narrative is positive. The utility and effectiveness of storytelling are evident through the following points:

  1. Ease of Understanding: Stories are more accessible than documents, making comprehension straightforward.

  2. Memory Enhancement: The contextual nature of storytelling makes it easier for people to remember the information presented.

  3. Reduction of Objections: Stories can diminish objections by breaking down walls of cynicism and other protective barriers that individuals typically maintain.

  4. Intrigue and Engagement: Storytelling captivates audiences, preventing disengagement and maintaining focus during conversations or meetings.

  5. Emotional Connection: Stories tap into the emotional side of listeners, fostering a deeper connection.

  6. Facilitation of Dialogue: Stories invite questions and responses, creating opportunities for unexpected interactions.

  7. Formulation of Connection: Stories about the organization, work, and partners strengthen the bond between individuals and the organization.

  8. Promotion of Knowledge Sharing: Storytelling creates a conducive environment for sharing knowledge.

  9. Assistance in Coordination Through enhanced understanding and accompanying discourse, stories contribute to organizational harmony.

  10. Empowerment: Well-told stories empower readers/listeners, as emphasized by Prusak.

  11. Behavioral Influence: Stories have the potential to influence behavior, aligning it with company values, mainly when linked to the managerial exemplification of these values.

  12. Learning Enhancement: Learning, as defined by Nunecka, occurs through the interaction between people.


Recognizing that the storyteller also holds a personal interest in the story is crucial. The success of knowledge transfer serves as an empowering and intrinsic motivation tool. As a significant knowledge management tool, storytelling is underutilized, prompting organizations to contemplate how and where to leverage its potential.

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