A whole new narrative revolution is upon us, and we might be sleepwalking through it. Storytelling for Business and Organizations is becoming popular-yes, and every CEO wants to learn to become a better storyteller. But then Berny Madoff and AGC and the directors of Enron were consumate storytellers. they didn’t need us. So what is the value add? Do we need to be helping corporate America with a story bail out too?
This explosion in the business of stories for business is disturbing if one looks at all the damage corporate stories are doing to inflate realities, deny responsibilities and dupe people into buying more and more stuff that they don’t need and only trash the planet. Think of one honest corporate story that you can guarantee is truthful and not out to manipulate our emotions?
I can’t. All I can think if is BP, Shell, Enron,Exxon, Toyota, General Motors, Walmart, ObamaCare, the TeaParty, the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, NSA, Rupert Murdoch, AGC, Lehmann Brothers, Fox News, DC City Council, and on and on it goes. This is corporate story-selling. How could storytelling ever survive the label of “corporate” and still be respected as an honorable profession? Corporate storytelling is another name for Capitalist storytelling, and at a time when even the Pope and the President are realizing that this system is marginalizing more and more of the poor and only empowering the rich. Surely there has to be a new imperative for the business of storytelling? Apart from corporations.
And sooner or later, we will have to face what is slowly emerging from new research about the power of stories that threaten turn our own operating assumptions on their head.
Let me describe four trends.
First, when the latest books having to do with stories are being written by neuro-scientists and statiticians, people like Kahneman and Ariely and Taleb, and not your usual PR and marketers or retired screenwriters, you know something unusual is happening. But its their findings that confound.
Their conclusions suggest that the most powerful force of stories is not to do good, but to deceive and distort, and to create false realities that shape our wisest and most informed decisions. We get it wrong, again and again, and stories are the virus in the system. Essentially, we are being told that our art does more harm than good. We thought we had won the argument with Plato years ago when he wanted to ban the poets from the Republic. Is this Plato’s revenge? Now these scientists come out and tell us we are magicians, expert in the narrative fallacy. If a story seems so true, it must be true. And we teach people how to make a story feel true- Essentially, we are teaching people how to lie in a convincing manner.
Second, another team of researchers on memory discover that memory is not a tape recorder or the YouTube between our ears where you can press replay and recapture the moment. No, memory is a serial storyteller, more like a fiction writer than a reporter. Eye witness testimony is unreliable and mostly invented to fit the moment of later necessity, and memories of trauma can be created by the story of the trauma, the emotional toll of its retelling, rather than by the event itself. Trauma is the pain of the memory more than the event.
Does this mean our trauma and grief counselors are delivering harm in the name of great good? And what about our legal system? It privileges the eye witness in trying a case and that now seems to be profoundly misguided. When 70% of convictions that are overturned are on the basis of false eye witness testimony that is delivered in good faith, you can start to see the problem that belief in stories is creating.
Take the case studies of 9-11 oral memories, those light bulb moments, and how radically they changed 5 years later and 10 years later- with the witnesses believing that they were telling the same story. Or add the scarey evaluations of how critical stress debriefing not only does not work, but can plant false memories that can be as damaging as real traumas. These findings are challenging all our most cherished assumptions about the power of stories to unite and heal. The research says stories are deadly, they cause more harm that our stories tell. These findings sound like an all out assault on our virtue as well as our value as storytellers.
The third branch of this revolution is the study of how stories spread- the new field of Social Physics and network science- whose findings play havoc with our “word of mouth” theory of how a story spreads, or what one best seller says, the stickiness of ideas. It all turns out to have little if anything to do with the story- its about the connection- the pipelines, the proximity pyramid, what is next to what- and why some great sticky stories get unstuck, and some teflon stories stick like chewing gum, not because of them but in spite of them. We profess to help people shape compelling stories and we are telling such a convincing story that we believe it, and they believe it and we remember it and they remember it, and what we forget is, that it maybe all wrong. We are unindicted co-conspirators in spreading this dangerous fantasy. It makes one ask some hard questions, if we are guilty of grossly over-claiming our value and negligently understating the risk?
If stories are lies and deceptions, are we professional liars? Are we the victims of our own PR that convinces us that our stories about stories are true, that we are examples of the narrative fallacy that says that if it makes sense, and feels right, it has to be true. What if we are weaving the webs of deception, and all along, the memory acts as our co-conspirator, that fabulous fabulist who makes it all up as it goes along. We think we can make something go viral, or plant a story that is sticky, when the data says it is not so.
Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” shows us data that debunks the myths – of the super brokers who successfully invest your money- where there is nothing super about their work save their bonuses, or the army officer selection tests conducted over ropes courses, that predict talent but in reality, measure nothing, or a host of other seemingly obviously true stories that explain how things work or can be fixed. Military need better diversity and gender respect, so lets do workshops. Do they work? No, but its a good idea because it should have worked. Students need to encounter other cultures so lets send them for a semester abroad. Do they learn intercultural competency? No, but its a great story. All these stories are rationales for what should work, but all that works is the story’s power to deceive, making us blind to what is really going on. Our story fits, so why do we have to even look?
The jury is still deliberating, but the evidence implies that we storytellers are engaging in a business that perhaps does not deserve the rank of our self acclaimed high reputation. We are a profession that has dodged the ethical questions of our own practice because we are there to sell stories and our stories of success make us successful so we will keep on telling them. But what if we are misguided artists of a sacred craft that even the ancients knew not to play with lest a story be let loose that destroys the world. Then our faith in stories might be in need of some atheists and agnostics, or at least a Martin Luther to post up the 93 theses to invite us to take a second look at this god we worship.