Why do we crave stories? The impact of storytelling on organizations

Author: Çiğdem Tongal

When I say “Snow White,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Crystal clear white snow, a red apple, or a princess? I thought so. How come a tale of a princess can trigger the same series of events in the minds of everyone regardless of where ever they are around the world?

That is the power of a story.

“In the end, we all become stories.”
Margaret Atwood

From ancient history, humans have created unique ways to tell their stories. So much so that the homo sapiens we know is now also referred to as “homo-narrans” (storytelling human). Unlike any other mammal, we have an innate need to transfer our knowledge to others, reflect who we authentically are, and, above all, to make sense of the world, of people, of everything. We do all through stories, as they enable our minds to expand, to understand, and most importantly, to empathize with others. Whether it be a cave painting or a TED talk, we have found ingenious ways to document our stories and make sure that they are heard and live on generation after generation.

This is also true for organizations, as they are also living systems made up of people. Organizations are sources of new narratives; they continually generate tales that belong to their authentic culture and come up with new stories to move their stakeholders.

Storytelling: new buzzword, ancient tradition

Especially in recent years, the art of storytelling became a new thrill within every sector: we see countless books, articles, and webinars on how to tell a good old story. There are legendary CEOs who have used the power of storytelling to impress people across all sectors. There is a whole new training world built around storytelling and how to give an excellent speech to move your audience like a prominent politician right before the election.

Storytelling is the new skill everyone seems to be fighting for.

But what is all the fuss about?

One might say storytelling is a natural skill; one must be born with it. Some already have it by nature, and then some can’t just seem to get a sentence straight in front of an audience.

Yet, when asked the right question, each and every one of us will be able to tell a story. Whether it will be moving or not may depend on your confident posture, impeccable articulation, the mood of the audience/reader, or the excellent content itself. (Or maybe all of it?)

It is no coincidence that once worked on; everyone can come up with a storyline. That’s due to the simple fact that a story by textbook definition is “a description of either a true or imaginary series of connected events.”

Aristotle’s definition of narrative constitutes elements such as a plot, a character, dialog, etc. In his description, the narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. Thus he takes narrative as a whole entity, one that has a starting and a stopping point. Once one can pinpoint these series of events and the elements in a simple manner, there you go, you have a story. Good or bad, that’s the topic of another debate. In the end, we are all homo-narrans that are equipped with a secret power.

“The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences, but through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.”
Steven Spielberg

How can stories help organizations unite?

Aligning everyone to be on the same page, creating unity and purpose would be a leaders’ first choice. I’m sure Steve Jobs could not be wrong when he said that ‘the most powerful person is the storyteller.

Every community has a story to tell, and this also holds for organizations. For example, take a newcomer; what do you tell him/her during the orientation? Take an organization’s website; what is written in the ‘About us’ section? Take a LinkedIn job post; what do you put in the description?

Unlike Aristotle’s definition of narrative with a definite beginning and an end, an organization’s story is alive; it never stops, and it is being rewritten every day. Its founding fathers and mothers choose a narrative according to their vision, and those succeeding them may decide to abide by that narrative. To one’s surprise, that might also never be the case; with every decision you make and every action you take, you rewire the series of your events, thus changing the plot, the characters, and the dialogues.

“Good stories surprise us. They make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint crammed with bar graphs never can.”
Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow, The Storytelling Edge

Maybe the story is an alluring myth to capture the right talent (and strengthen unity to keep them engaged) or an ongoing anchor to keep the employee loyalty high or a mere communication tool to attract new customers/donors/investors. Perhaps simply put, you need an account to document past events.

Whatever it may be, your story will give your organization the meaning it craves, the identity it needs, to identify its authentic role. Prof. David Boje, a prominent scholar on storytelling and organization, came up with the term ‘the storytelling organization’ which he defines as “collective storytelling system in which the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense-making and a means to allow to supplement individual memories with institutional memory.”

This is why stories are so attractive, especially in a time where all organizations are face to face with an identity crisis. We are all in search of meaning, and that meaning can be found through stories. As Umberto Eco beautifully put: “To survive, you must tell stories.”

If you were asked to write the story of your organization today, what would be the milestones? Who would be the main characters? And above all, what would you be telling your audience?