Why is narrative important?
If you have read part one of this 3 part blog I hope you will agree that story is compelling but its appeal depends on what the receiver brings to it far more than the richness of the media the storyteller uses or the attractiveness of their personality (although these are important too.
If to tell them is a natural and spontaneous human activity, then why should we intervene? Do we need to make special efforts to construct stories in a laboratory and use them to engineer and track practical outcomes for people within communities and organisations? Is it not enough to allow time and opportunity for people to tell and attend to story?
Maybe it is, but analysis and evaluation and critical judgement are skills that may need nurturing if they are to develop. A story works well as a simple unfolding of events; this happened and that happened. Children growing up in the fifties were raised on so-called ‘and then’ stories, from writers such as Enid Blyton and CS Lewis. There was not much to be read into the characterisation or the relationship between cause and effect. Moving through childhood into adolescence the ‘and thens’ for this generation came from Agatha Christie (Murder mysteries) and Ian Fleming (James Bond). However, it could be a meeting with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s Great Detective, that first turned critical faculties towards characterisation and problem solving through story. Here were narratives that had intricate patterns of behaviour and of interaction amongst humans. It inspired the feeling of wanting to know what happened next, how the protagonists were feeling, what motivated them and how you might behave under similar circumstances.
Stories, case studies or scenarios – however we choose to describe narrative – can be so useful in engineering particular behaviours in the workplace or the community. Narrative creates a fresh insight into new destinations, and reveals paths you might follow and actions you might take to reach them.
In sales training it is common to use story. A sales assistant might use a narrative with dialogue to come to understand what a customer had in mind that led to a decision to buy or not to buy. Analysis and generalisation might lead to a planned change in behaviour and improved sales results. But the story and the dialogue must be authentic. After matching with their own past experience or other reality checks, the learner will dismiss it as just pure fiction if does not have a ring of truth.
Using unlikely sounding dialogue is a common way of losing the learner. Writing realistic dialogue is absolutely fraught with risk and hence must be approached with caution and skill. A useful tip is to always read out loud the dialogue you write. If it is awkward to articulate, then it is almost certainly unrealistic. People take shortcuts when talking – particularly in an informal situation.
A ‘What if?’ has a lower prospect of affecting behaviour than a, ‘What when?’. For example, if we say, “Let’s imagine what it will be like if our managers make a better job of Performance appraisal”, then the likely response is “That might work for XYZ, but you’d never get our managers to do it.”
By contrast we might say, “Let’s see what happened when reluctant or unconfident managers like ours changed the way they thought about and conducted performance appraisal.” Now the story is a verifiable matter of historic fact. It has already happened, and so it can happen again if the circumstances can be understood and repeated.
We need to take care not to manipulate facts and figures in a cynical way. A narrative might be factually accurate but not truthful. A commonly quoted example is the true fact that 700 passengers who travelled on the Titanic reached New York in complete safety. Once it has been revealed that the ship sank with the loss of 1500 lives then the story and the teller have irrevocably lost trust and credibility.
One company I know tried to encourage people to persevere with its “delinquent” CRM system by relating the amount of money it had invested in it, the effort it had devoted to improving and updating it, and the string of successful implementations its supplier had accomplished in other businesses. It went on to describe all the features which made it so user-friendly and reliable. None of those messages were as influential as the ‘pity parties’ that took place daily wherever users convened and spoke of the frustrations and disappointments they were suffering and the ‘work-arounds’ they had developed using spreadsheets, paper, post-it notes and other ingenious tactics.
Sharing stories can have a major impact in transforming individuals and organisations. It can intensify learning and self-awareness. When people exchange stories – whether it is something they’ve heard or something they’ve experienced for themselves – it has a profound effect on their mutual trust and respect as well as their learning. But there is a strong tendency for communication in organisations to skew the picture of how things are in reality. Training must take care not to be complicit in this deception, because trust, once lost, is difficult to recover.
And they all lived happily ever after
You might suppose that you’d get a negative response from a story that began, “Let me tell you about a team that did everything wrong and ended up in dire straits”. Think again. Take a lead from Shakespeare. He set out to show through his tragedies what can happen to The Weak, or The Naïve; to The Vain, The Lustful or The Vengeful. All the great classical dramatists knew about this. The Greeks had a word for it – catharsis. Story was believed to be so powerful a tool in influencing and regulating behaviour that it was compulsory for the people of ancient Athens to attend the theatre and witness crime, tragedy and retribution on an epic scale. If a citizen had no coin to pay, then the state provided it for him. The principle was simple – if the ordinary man witnessed Oedipus murdering his father and bedding his mother, then his own blood lust would be satisfied by proxy as it were, and he would be morally stronger for having seen the punishment that follows sin.
In the final part of this blog we’ll talk about the monomyth and I’ll finish with 7 tips for using stories in training.