April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Smithsonian Institution Conference on Organizational Storytelling, & the Golden Fleece storytelling conference

Although my thoughts are not yet fully formed, I want to offer some immediate reflection on the past 3 days, spent with colleagues, students, and leaders in the field of applied narrative....

* I am especially delighted to have met Victoria Ward, of Sparknow, and to have discussed with her some of the ethical boundaries of working with story within nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations: one person's story should not be elicited solely for the purpose of getting money from a donor, or capturing other resources. Story is not a commodity, to be taken from one person and given to another, for a price. I've previously touched on the dangers of approaching storytelling as a transaction, and I will continue to explore how story can be ethically and effective used as a communication tool within the philanthropic sector.

* Leading up to the weekend, there was some discussion of the extent to which the applications and breadth of the concept of story would be discussed. Will participants solely be discussing face-to-face story sharing? Or the creation of a personal or organizational or meta- narrative through social media? At the Thursday evening program, I deliberately stated that the program was focused on interpersonal story sharing to move listeners to action, especially in a business setting. The insight gleaned from our program can be applied to organizational narrative, messaging framing, and digital storytelling (to mention just a few applications), and each of those communication vehicles has their own approaches and spaces for innovation.

Today, Larry Forster, of Shell Exploration and Production Co., and I discussed our reflections on the two conferences. What I came to realize is that both interpersonal and organizational communication is chaotic and distributed simultaneously across multiple channels, and that story is a tool for making sense of, embracing, and somewhat taming, that complexity. It's not about face-to-face versus social media storytelling, but rather about sharing large narratives and distinct stories across all platforms. Some avenues are better carriers of narrative and some are more suited to the sharing of personal story.

Just as I implore people to make ambiguous concepts concrete, I think those of us working in the field of applied narrative should ask our audiences about their interests and strive to articulate the specific definitions and applications of which we are speaking. I am reminded of Svend-Erik Engh's definition of "diamond" stories, meaning the shining story that perfectly captures brand essence; Shawn Callahan's distinction between "Big S" and "little s" stories; and Cynthia Kurtz's discussion of "natural" versus "purposeful" stories.

* At both our Wednesday program in NYC on communication and story for leaders, and at our Smithsonian Institution program on the use of story in organizations, Svend-Erik and I received the same question: Does one tell a story differently to men and to women?

I believe story sharing knows no gender difference. And I know of no scientific data to support a distinct approach for each gender. What matters is sharing an authentic story with your listener and listening, in turn, to him or her to respond based on their experience. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Thaler - I attended the organizational storytelling workshop in DC last Thursday, and my colleagues at the National Museum of American History are interested in what I learned. One question they asked is whether you can share examples of organizations that are particularly good at organizational storytelling. The more good models we have, the better! Thanks so much.



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