storytelling animal at work collective next facilitation

Below is the third installment of our multi-part series entitled The Narrative Universe. In the coming weeks, we will explore how we humans construct our world—even our professional world—through stories, myths and narratives.

Solution Designers Dave Rutley and Renee Piazza are champions of the role of storytelling in organizational change. I spoke with them about the power of narrative and the provocative claims in Jonathan Gottschall’s recent book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

Marsha Dunn: What draws you to stories and storytelling? Where did this start for you?

Renee Piazza: Years ago I worked in publishing at Time, Inc. I was charged with conducting a yearlong study of trends in consumer-generated content and the importance of letting readers engage with the brand. At year’s end I had to find a way to condense all of my findings into succinct presentations to my senior editors. I was completely overwhelmed and swimming in data, until I realized what I needed was a story. The data would not inspire my audience to head in a new direction. The story is what moves us to take action. I came to love the challenge of turning abstract info into something compelling at a human level.

Dave Rutley: I am and always have been a huge reader. In reading stories, my imagination is activated in ways that movies and TV can’t touch. Stories cut through all the static of my life. And I think it’s the same for our clients. Put yourself in their shoes. You are an executive who receives hundreds if not thousands of emails a day; you see twenty, thirty, even forty PowerPoint presentations per day. When the dust settles, what sticks with you?  In my experience, it’s the stories. The stories become the organizing principle around which we begin to synthesize information, to give it meaning, context, and purpose.

MD: The Storytelling Animal helps to explain why stories have this power kind of power. Gotschall shows how storytelling runs deep into our evolutionary past, and comes to permeate human life from childhood to old age, daydreams to nightmares, novels to playoff games. Stories, he argues, function as a kind of virtual reality in which we explore, test, and rehearse for life’s challenges. Did this broad, evolutionary lens change the way you think about storytelling? 

DR: There is a lot of buzz around storytelling right now and that immediately produces skeptics. Gottschall reminds us that far from being the flavor of the month, the appeal of stories is timeless. As long as there are humans there will be storytelling. Leaders and managers severely limit their toolset if they ignore stories.

MD: Renee, you joined Collective Next this year. Has this impacted the way you think about storytelling? Did The Storytelling Animal make you think differently about how we facilitate design sessions? 

RP: I have been struck how our use of future state scenario exercises stimulates the imagination in exactly the ways that Gottschall describes. The fictional nature of the scenario invites you to imagine and explore a “what if,” and in that imaginative space new thinking emerges for our clients.

MD: So effective stories don’t just hand us the answers; they create the space in which we can co-create insights and solutions. 

RP: In my experience, stories are doubly effective when people feel like they are co-creators with the narrator—when they really have to connect to their collective imaginations to find, develop and tell the story.

MD: Gottschall offers a terse description of a man being shipwrecked and then asks the reader to reflect on just how much we filled in the unwritten details with our imagination in order to bring it alive and make it personal.

RP: Filling in those details, engaging the imagination in this way, that’s when we make the story our own. The same thing happens when we scribe or graphic record a session; the visuals invite participants to use their imagination to co-create an evolving narrative.

MD: This instinct to co-create stories is vividly on display in organizational life.

DR: The stories a company tells are their culture.  If you want to understand an organization’s culture, go into the lunchroom and listen to the stories being shared.

RP: Just as stories shape families and cultures, they shape organizations. Stories build shared value systems, a sense of community and common purpose.

MD: Given what we’ve said about stories, how can organizations go about changing their narratives?

DR: Nature abhors a vacuum; if organizations aren’t intentional about forwarding specific collective narratives, the space will just naturally fill up with noise. The challenge is to foster stories that promote and celebrate a cohesive culture while leaving space for individuals to take creative ownership of those stories.

MD: We’ve discussed the ways that stories help to fashion organizational identity, to stimulate the imagination, to generate fresh ideas, and to give power, clarity and humanity to presentations. How else does our work harness the elements of storytelling? 

DR: When I design the sequence of experiences that will compose a collaborative session, I think about taking the participants on a journey, just as a storyteller does. There have to be plots points, challenges to overcome, tensions heightened, and resolutions achieved—all of the components of a narrative arc.

MD: And the story has to be compelling.

DR: Our agenda needs to be as tightly scripted as a good novel. If you don’t connect all of the elements, as great storytellers do, participants get lost. If participants feel lost, even just for a minute, they can disengage for 30-minutes, or for the entire session. As attention spans get shorter, the storytelling needs to be even tighter and more sophisticated.

MD: When facilitating client sessions, we never publish the agenda for participants to peruse. This is to build suspense?

DR: That and it keeps participants in the moment, just as great novels do. Collaborative work requires being and staying present. That’s where everything happens.

MD: As much as you have emphasized the importance of a tightly scripted event, I know that at certain point in the session we, the facilitators, hand over the storytelling reins to the participants. We ask them to take ownership of the journey, to determine the future state they want to create going out of the session.

DR: By handing over the reins can you achieve engagement at a deep, sustainable, and collective level. We prepare for this collective ownership throughout the session by having participants report back their work from smaller breakout teams to the full participant body. The teams need to convey what they did and why it matters. And when a team tells a compelling story, those ideas live on in the session and beyond.

MD: In addition to feeding the work of small groups into the larger story, we often begin sessions with an exercise in which individual participants share their future visions of success. Groups identify common themes across these perspectives and use these as building blocks of the collective story.

DR: It is about owning and telling the story of a shared vision of success.

MD: Give us a closing thought—an ending, if you will—on storytelling in an organizational context.

DR: If you are going to take the time to talk to people about something that is important, why not do it in the most impactful way possible? When I coach presenters, I always start with one question: What is your story? Don’t show me slides. PowerPoint can be a terrific tool, but unfortunately we often leverage the material that is available rather than essential. Understand the story first.

RP: We are hardwired to tell and hear stories and they are an essential tool for transformation and change. If your goal is to make a complex idea come alive and inspire people, you need to be skilled at storytelling.