Banishing the Binder: Training Professionals to Find Story in Research

Overview

The power of story is unrealized in professional organizations. Reams of research are collected from quantitative and qualitative techniques and painstakingly archived in presentation templates while binders collect dust on overstuffed shelves along the cube-walls of businesspersons everywhere. Reports and executive summaries are presented to audiences distracted by their mobile devices – a distraction enabled by the unengaged mind. These organizations become places where knowledge goes to die because data, ideas, and implications are captured for quick reference and added to a library that no one visits.

The existence of a library, or archive, however is not the issue. The problem is the absence of an effective system to explain where everything may be found and the systems that do exist are counterproductive. The modern organization sees so much organizational change – turnover, restructuring of teams and responsibilities – that many newly created teams end up conducting new research and unknowingly retrace the decision making process their ancestors did before them. The modern organization has lost the critical tool that cultures around the world have used to prevent the erosion of cultural knowledge – the story. Pages of bullets – loaded with data that is too difficult to understand in a short, social setting – are shared without the storyteller and the story itself has been drained of its blood. Edward Tufte, perhaps the most renowned analytical design expert, shares, “We’ve drifted into this presentation mode without realizing the cost to the content and the audience in the process.”

The goal of this paper is to outline how organizations can leverage the power of story. I will demonstrate, first, what makes a story more than just interesting but also effective. I will then walk through how the tools for creating story can be applied to the professional presentation of research insights and their implications. My aim is to enhance the value of research by enabling it to be shared in a memorable and motivational way.

Defining Story

In Story Proof: The science behind the startling power of story, Kendall Haven thoroughly points out that there is no single definition of story (Haven 2007). This fact makes it a difficult area of study. Our mind works in story but does not naturally think of story as a concept. Haven explains it best in his first chapter, “And that makes story research so difficult. Fish don’t understand water because they are forever immersed in it and have no other experience, no other reference point, with which to compare “water”” (Haven 2007). The difficulty is not in the lack of story but in the lack of ways to describe stories. Since we think in story, we have come to use story to describe everything. It includes any unfolding of events or narrative that has a character, a beginning, middle and an end.

I consider Haven’s definition the best description of a good story. He writes that story is “a detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal” (Haven 2007, pg. 79). While traditional definitions often focus on the narrative of a character going through events, Haven’s definition includes critical details that elevate the definition of story to something equal with how the mind processes them. He begins with “detailed”. Though easily dismissed as just an adjective, this element of an effective story represents the way the brain engages with the world around it. The mind creates story out of evocative details as opposed to flat facts. These details transform basic descriptions of behavior into an engaging story. The inclusions of struggles, obstacles and goals in the definitions are what make the story an interesting one. In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Don Miller explains that the best stories involve a great struggle for a significant goal. He jokes that very few people will pay to see a movie about a man who wants a Volvo. The most successful stories involve an emotionally powerful goal – save the world, save my children, marry the person I love – that is difficult to achieve because of internal, external and powerful obstacles in the way (Miller 2009). This description of story is the most accurate when considering what makes a story an interesting story, but the definition still lacks an element to make it an effective one.

To create an effective story, it must include the elements of Haven’s definition but also be relevant to the audience. This relevance is what shifts a story from being entertaining to being life-changing. It takes the moral of a story and allows an audience to personally apply it to their active lives. The more relevant the story is, the more application they can find in more areas of their lives. The authors of Storytelling in Organizationsexplain that not all stories are effective. Effective stories must be “understandable” to the audience. They have to know the elements of the story and they have to be able to relate to them in some way (Brown, Denning et al. 2005, pg. 119).

Binders Collecting Dust

Though it is not the culprit, current business tools like PowerPoint have aided and abetted in the absence of story from professional communications. They have done so with the best intentions. In order to combat the terabits of communications that fly across the channels within an organization, employees are given templates that allow them to filter down hundreds of pages of research into a few slides of PowerPoint. The majority of these slides are bullets and charts. Stephen Denning, in The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, describes the challenge in comprehending some of these charts and bullets. Numbers are for the large part an abstract concept – especially when we get into large numbers, any percentage and other statistical calculations. These numbers “only tend to dwarf us all, confirm our insignificance as individuals and reinforce our seeming inability to influence such size. The very bigness of the numbers leads on to an irresistible and relentless conclusion that it scarcely matters what we as individuals might think” (Denning 2001, pg. 11). Mother Theresa perhaps put it best, as I paraphrase, “When we think of helping the masses, we do nothing. When we think of helping the one, we act!”

Numbers alone do not tell a story. We discover how many people engage in a certain behavior, purchase a certain product or might respond favorably to a campaign but we do little to progress our understanding of why and how we can make change based on that knowledge. Even when we make recommendations based on numbers, it very rarely inspires action without the numbers being contained within a story to which an audience can relate. The Heath brothers note in Made to Stick, “the world of business tends to emphasize the pattern over the particular… The intellectual aspects of the pattern prevent people from caring”(Heath and Heath 2007, pg. 202).

Application

The power of story is to link otherwise boring details into a meaningful and moving narrative. It is this power that makes it a much needed and appropriate tool for professional organizations. Powerful quantitative and qualitative research studies become paralyzed by the lack of story when sharing them in an organization. By applying the elements of effective stories through tested tools, business professionals can deliver insights and socialize change more effectively, and efficiently, than ever before.

Story brings the mundane to life. Haven quotes the book Hamlet’s Castleto describe the power of story to transform data. He quotes Gordon Mills:

Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together… None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness of the human soul.

(Haven 2007, pg. 9)

In the case of the professional organization, the stones of Hamlet’s castle become reports, findings and insights. Without a story, they exist only on one level. But once incorporated into story, these documents, which are otherwise painful to read, become part of a larger purpose. They take on layers of meanings that can affect an entire organization.

            Storytellers have been using tools to tell creative, memorable stories for centuries. These same tools can be applied to business as well. The first tool to review is Figure 1, the Annotated Visual Portrait of a Story (VPS) adapted by Jason Ohler, from Dillingham.

 

Figure 1          Annotated Visual Portrait of a Story (VPS)

The VPS clearly documents the problem, transformation and resolution of a story (Ohler 2008, pg. 79). It includes a beginning or call to adventure, a problem or tension, the conflict and resulting transformation, and then a solution and ending. For professional organizations, these can easily be mapped onto the story behind a research project with the help of Haven’s five informational elements of story (Haven 2007, pg. 75-76). The beginning is the briefest section and describes the current state of affairs. It is the details of the characters and context of the story that will unfold. By establishing this foundation, we create a character through which the audience can assess and interpret the details of the story. The listener can map those details to his or her own mental models. This helps create the relevance every story needs to be effective.

Defining the end goal focuses the entire story as it is crafted. It clarifies the intent of the hero in the story. As such, we can clearly rank the significance of obstacles. It creates a more effective filter that gets rid of unnecessary details, charts, and numbers and includes the information that moves the character towards that goal.

The real meat of the story then is the problem. This is the issue that has inspired action. In many cases, it may be the loss of market share, the launch of a new product or the entry of a new competitor. It is this tension that drives the need for research and helps establish the research question. These are the obstacles to the goal. The middle or conflict in the story relates to the action taken to overcome those obstacles. This is the journey the organization travels in order to accomplish transformation.

The transformation represents the relevant, key finding of the research. It is used to quickly describe what might otherwise be captured in an executive summary of research findings. It is the change that has taken place because of learning. It is the lens through which the organization makes a decision about what to do next. The solution is the resulting decisions made because of this new knowledge. It represents the new positioning, the new product, or the new strategy to combat competitive threats.

By weaving these elements together, we find the story where we once thought only data and bullet points existed. We create connections and foster new connections in the minds of audiences. The brain is a perfect analogy in this case. Haven uses another research scientist, Sidonie Smith, to illustrate why some memories are vivid memories. Smith concluded that “vivid memories have four features: they break a script (an expectation), they are consequential (have impact), they involve emotional charge, and they have value (meaning) for the person remembering” (Smith 2003). By finding story in the data, we help create memory in the audience and those memories ultimately influence future behavior – or ideally, organizational change.

Conclusion

The real power of story is in the interpretation and re-sharing of those stories. The truly effective story is powerful because it actually tells two stories. Brown, Denning, Groh and Prusak explain, “For each member of the audience, there are actually two listeners” (Brown, Denning et al. 2005, pg. 114). There is the listener you see nodding his or her head and, if bored, checking mobile devices. The other listener is the internal voice – the mind – of the audience. This voice actively retells your story filling each element described above in the map with its own projections. It replaces the characters and obstacles of the story with itself, its peers and its own business challenges and solutions. The audience sees beyond what the story tells to understand what the story means. They take ownership of the story in a way a PowerPoint filed on a hard drive or a report stored in a binder will never allow. This is how to create change in an organization. Make every person a storyteller, if only to him or herself, by learning how to effectively tell story.

References

 

Brown, J. S., S. Denning, et al. (2005). Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management. Burlington, MA, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Denning, S. (2001). The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Burlington, MA, Butterworth Heinemann.

Haven, K. (2007). Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story. Westport, CT, Libraries Unlimited.

Heath, C. and D. Heath (2007). Made to stick: why some ideas survive and others die. New York, Random House.

Miller, D. (2009). A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson.

Ohler, J. (2008). Digital Storytelling in the Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin Press.

Smith, S. (2003). Material Selves: Bodies, Memory, and Autobiographical Narrating. Narrative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology and the Brain. G. Fireman, et al., eds. New York, Oxford University Press: pp 17-36.