I’ll be neither the first person nor the last to point out the role of storytelling in our working lives. Most of us are, without wishing to sound unkind, suckers for a great narrative: a plotline that has us gripped, wanting adversity to be overcome and for the beleaguered hero’s true worth to be finally recognised. The same isn’t entirely true of films, where our pre-conditioned willingness to accept the whole thing as both fiction and entertainment makes us more willing to ‘cheer on’ an anti-hero than is usually the case with books: for most reader’s, a book has to create a more convincingly ‘real’ world.
So, while you might be tempted to think of your organisation’s on-going goings-on as more like a soap opera or a stirring tale of derring-do, stop for a moment and think of a novel: most novels will do for this, although maybe we could try The Great Gatsby or Wuthering Heights. The reason I’ve suggested these two is to make a finer point about our love of ‘narrative’ – that what we respond to is actually human stories. By which I mean stories about humans, rather than by them. And there is a difference between reading books and living life that should matter to anyone interested in the responses of other to the stories that they tell – and the character that they present.
So why did I suggest those two particular novels? Their respective narrators – Nick Carraway and Nelly Dean – are our ways into the worlds of these novels: our eyes and ears. But the stories they weave are not principally theirs: they are not the main characters of these fictional worlds. Although they have personalities and actions involve them, their principle role is to narrate. If they were telling their own tales, these novels might have been called The Average Carraway or Wuthering Heights: Housekeeper’s Manual and Inventory. Possibly not as compelling, I’m sure you’ll agree. But the tales they tell are essentially the tales of someone else – it’s not really them that we are interested in.
By contrast, the workplace storyteller – and, if clarification is needed, rest assured I don’t mean a fascinating relator of gossip – mostly uses the model of the story and the narrative to put across their story or vision. When narrator and main character of a story are one and the same, the audience needs more than a sequence of actions and reactions to fully engage: they need a believable, fully-fledged picture of a person too.
It’s something that Neil Morrison – unironically, Group HR Director at Random House, a publishing company – also points out in a recent blog: Tell me more, tell me more…..
I’m interested in who you are.
Not how you come across.
I think that takes a lot.
To look beyond the presentation and understand the person beneath. So much of our lives work on the superficial and we create the back story in our minds that justifies our initial perspectives.”
It takes courage to be vulnerable and open, of course, but doing so creates three reasons for your audience not only to listen to and relate to you but to be swayed towards sympathy – and those three things are your courage, vulnerability and openness. But essentially, I agree with Neil – a sense of the person doing the telling brings the presentation alive for the audience.
If I say ‘Human beings are curious’, you’ll be aware that those four words can have two meanings: firstly, that we are intrigued to know more about each other, and secondly that we are in ourselves intriguing and multi-faceted. These are both reasons why story-telling is so powerful. Stories present people to us, and the more complex they are, the more interesting they are. (Stories about one-dimensional characters tend to focus on this as being the most fascinating thing about them – because what else is there to focus on?) And the more ‘human’ the characters – and the first-person narrators – the more credible and believable they are to us as listeners. Because they are more like us.
Of course, there is an old saying that may have occurred to you by now: curiosity killed the cat. But, as anyone who has tried to spend long enough in close proximity to a cat to get a pill down its throat (let alone commit some less therapeutic act on the poor creature) can tell you, the only way to despatch a moggie without firearms or poisons all involve doing something else first: engaging it.
It’s not just the story that engages, it’s the story-teller. A story-teller that is backing out of their whole story – presenting without being fully present – is like a hokey-cokey dancer: left foot in, left foot out … To tell your story, don’t just put your best foot forward. Use both feet.