12 July 2006

Storytelling: the particular and the abstract

Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of thought- and feeling-provoking hours in a workshop led by organisational consultant Geoff Mead on storytelling, for the Organisational Development Innovation Network.

After we told and re-told the variously truthful and fantastic stories of our shoes (by way of introducing ourselves) Geoff engaged us in thinking about the nature of stories and why they are so powerful as an expression and shaping of our identity and thought.

One of the things he suggested which caught my attention was the idea that we relate to the particular in a different way than we relate to the abstract. I'm curious about the origins and nature of this difference.

Enlarging on this 'different way', Geoff cited the ideas of Hugh Brody, an anthropologist, and Jerome Bruner a psychologist. The former apparently distinguishes needs for the particular and abstract between hunter-gatherer and farming communities, and the latter distinguishes two forms of thought, the narrative and the paradigmatic.

I will need to read more about their ideas. Meanwhile, I'm still left wondering about the 'different way'. The most obvious difference to me about my own relating to the particular and abstract is emotional. Stories evoke emotion in me more often or more strongly than abstract discourse does, not least when they are 'untrue' in the form of fiction, fable, myth and so on. They also have a greater tendency to evoke my own fantasy in response - I imagine more than I hear, as I am listening to a story, and my own fantasy extends, embellishes and leads elsewhere.

The insight for organising seems to me to be to notice our various preferences for particular and abstract forms of communication, to ask how we are relating to others as we express those preferences, and to notice what the consequences are. I don't believe that storytelling is inherently superior to more abstract conversation - they each have their time and place. And I'm not keen on storytelling being used as a means of convincing people of the greatness of leaders, or the rightness of plans, or the wonderfulness of organisations - that kind of organisational storytelling practice seems to be another kind of sales method.


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1 comment:

Matt O'Neill said...

yes, that's an interesting one...

my only issue with storytelling is that there's an inclination to make it something it's not.

i read a few of the steve denning books on the subject... there's something a bit artificial about using abstraction in business sometimes.

my favourite stories are those told by real people about real life.. perhaps anecdotes rather than full on storytelling is a way forward?

only one way...

i posted on the subject a while ago too:

http://activate.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/06/storytelling_an.html

matt