Boxing up complex concepts

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Narratives and story in organisations

Tomorrow should see the publication of Melcrum’s Practitioner’s Guide to Employee Engagement – in which I’ve contributed the chapter on using stories and narrative.  It’s been an interesting experience – having abandoned the attempt to fit a gallon into a pintpot early on, I aimed instead to convey the complexity (sic) and excitement of the issue and some hints of different approaches – only the readers can judge my success.

[Edit: Melcrum no longer exists, the Practitioner’s Guide is no longer available, so here is the guide in full.]

The reason we lean towards stories and narrative in comms (as hinted at here) ties in with concerns about bringing values and principles to life. Stories are better at conveying complex messages, appeal to our brain’s cognitive abilities in ways that values don’t and are powerful vehicles that put key decisions and difficulties into real contexts – which makes them crucial when we expect people to navigate complex situations. Situations like those described in this piece, written with DAV management on “Business Approaches for complex problems.

I also wanted to avoid too strong a focus on “storytelling” – as I say in the introduction to the chapter

Storytelling is a misnomer. It conjures up the image of a passive audience sitting listening to someone with the charismatic, persuasive power to entrance them. It revolves around a carefully-constructed story designed to carry you out of the day-to-day to somewhere else and change your thinking while you’re there.

What is on offer here is more powerful and more positive than that simplistic view. And while it involves storytelling throughout, some of the greatest opportunities for employee engagement lie in listening to stories, not telling.

The real power and opportunity for using stories in organisations is in listening to stories, helping others to create their own authentic stories and making sense of the stories told.

Even that, however, proved problematic.  One of the points that I focus on early in any change workshop or project is that employee engagement and culture change do not fit straightforward, 12-step projects.  And “best practice” varies – what works in one organisation will not produce the same (or, on occasion, even similar) results in another.

The editors – generous in their comments and advice – wanted something simple that anyone could pick up and put into practice.  For me, it felt like the Mullah Nasruddin story that Dave Snowden references here (about 2/3rds of the way down the post).  I’ve always liked it, but now see exactly how a propos it is.

In the field of communications, I’ve often felt we do ourselves disservices by dumbing down.  Sometimes we need to stretch to reach that bit further.  Stretch our minds in particular…

1 Comment

Johnnie Moore's Weblog · 26 January 2008 at 11:23 am

Dumbing down

My mate Tony Quinlan makes a good point about storytelling as a change technique in organisations.Storytelling is a misnomer. It conjures up the image of a passive audience sitting listening to someone with the charismatic, persuasive power to entrance…

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