“Jim felt too sick to attend the meeting later that morning. After 3 hours of sending e-mail, phone, and pager messages that were unanswered, he learned that the meeting was postponed until next week”.

What do we learn from this very short story? Well, in his work, Jim meets with people. He is using technology (pager and e-mail) on which he relies. Jim is sick, but not incapacitated, and so on and so on and so on… So, stories can contain large amounts of information in a small space. This information can be presented and assimilated quickly and almost automatically and it is easy to remember.

Indirect Messages
A story more complicated than Sick Jim is Little Red Riding Hood. We all have heard it in our childhood. But, what is the moral of this story? Well, do not go to the forest and do not talk with strangers. If you tell your children just this, what are they going to do next? Very likely- go to the forest and talk to strangers. Telling them the story instead gives them the indirect messages not to do that. They arrive at this conclusion by themselves using their own brains and not because you told them so. So, stories could be effective in communicating indirectly.

Text vs. Visual Representations
Suppose that now, you would like to depict the Sick Jim story using images rather than exclusively with words. In the verbal narrative, Jim’s whereabouts are unclear and may be irrelevant for telling the story. In a visual depiction, you would need to place Jim in a visual environment, like his bedroom. We would than have to add more information describing, for example, the color of the walls, sheets, pillows, and furniture.

Without these extra visual details, the scene would look odd. This is the challenge Alfred Hitchcock and the screenwriter had in transforming a text based narrative (written by Cornell Woolrich) into the 1954 film Rear Window. A story can be more economical because the narrative could leave out many details relying on the imagination of the reader. This “disadvantage” of visual depiction could make a story worth a 1,000 images. A story could be worth a 1,000 pictures, but it all depends. Sometime it does & sometimes it doesn't and one needs to use it only when appropriate!

Stories warm our hearts
Stories could warm our hearts. A typical mythological story starts with a description of a more or less calm life. Then, an inciting incident occurs and the world of the hero seems to shatter. In response, the hero struggles often risking everything he or she might have. At the end, the hero wins. Quite often, they transform themselves in this process. We tend to identify with these flights & struggles of heroes in stories. We all go through similar struggles during our lives.

Stories in Corporate Life

A typical story in corporate life is the one of success, but what about failure? Well, failure happens. . It is part of the real world and, in this world, failures are important as they do not always constitute a disadvantage. Stories about failure could sound more real and thus credible than stories about success and could convince potential customers better than all-success stories. Such stories could also teach us how NOT to do things. Failures are important in another way. Failures are often used to transform individuals and organizations. This is analogous to the struggles mythological heroes go through.

Stories could teach people and employees about the culture and values of the organization. It is more difficult to teach this knowledge (that is quite often tacit) using a laundry list of bullets in a PowerPoint presentation. Besides communicating existing culture, stories could also be used to maintain and strengthen existing culture. Stories could help change culture or to enhance a weak but positive trend by distributing stories that portray success or “coolness” achieved by certain desired qualities.


See, for example:
http://www.mitre.org/news/digest/archives/2002/storytelling.html

For the use of storytelling in the corporate environment, see, for example:
"Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management" by John Seely Brown, Katalina Groh, Laurence Prusak, Stephen Denning
Elsevier Science & Technology Books, May 2005

"Storytelling That moves People: A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee", Harvard Business Review, June 2003.

For more information or to discuss storytelling and its practical uses:

E-mail Address
Comments
More Resources
On Storytelling Applications
What storytelling can do for information visualization? A Communications of the ACM article
Is There a Future for Human Factors?




In Memoriam
Jacques-Emile Dubois, 1920-2005, Scientist, Miracle Worker, Schmoozer, Friend
Rich Gold, 1950-2003, Artist, Designer, Scientist, Engineer, Friend




* To schmooz (no "e"!): From Yiddish- to chat, to tell a story...