STORY IS KING: all else is slave

Storytelling” is arguably one of the most threadbare and ambiguous words in the modern business lexicon...

...even a perfunctory dig into Amazon unearths a torrent of publications on the topic. There’s “Better Selling through Storytelling”, a volume on “Putting Stories to Work in the C-Suite”, the ubiquitous “Business Storytelling for Dummies” and, somewhat creepily, “Once Upon a Time For Leaders”. Finally, as if not to be outdone, IT behemoth SAP has a seat at the boardroom table for a “Storyteller in Chief”. It’s enough to conjure up images of campfires, hot chocolate, feather duvets and Mother Goose. “Storytelling” it seems, is a word that can mean just about anything...which perhaps explains everything from the derisive eye-rolling to outright hostility whenever the word is used. Is “storytelling” the workplace equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes? First off, we must sideline our squeamishness to acknowledge the extraordinary power of stories. Since mastering speech, we have used stories to transmit information, values and worldviews. They are at the heart of what it means to be human. Stories have been the key to both preserving the status quo and to challenge it. Indeed, they moderate reality itself. Consider two examples from movie history: In October 1888 Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope, a precursor to the modern-day movie projector which, he confided in his diary, “does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear”. Into one end the operator would feed a piece of long, flexible film bearing multiple images. When this series moved through the device fast enough, it coalesced as a captivating spectacle of movement. In 1894, after 6 years of refinement, Edison built his first theatre on Broadway in New York City. People would pay five cents to watch a short, silent sequence of about 6 minutes in duration. But soon, a problem. People began rejecting the moving image sequences in favour of structured and cohesive plot lines - films from early cinema pioneers like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Edison might have been a great inventor but he was no storyteller. He gradually lost control of what passed for entertainment, a triumph of meaning over motion. Fast forward 50 years to December 1937 when Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” premiered in LA’s Cathay Circle Theatre. Given that Disney was a modestly talented animator who had a reputation for paying a pittance, what made Snow White such a movie-making landmark? Indeed, what drew America’s finest animators to his Burbank studio in the first place? Up to that point, animated shorts served as preludes to full-length features and, much like Edison’s first moving sequences, lacked a cohesive narrative structure. But when Disney first launched the Snow White project to his creative team, he personally acted out the entire tale, jumping between the lead character, each of the Seven Dwarves, the wicked witch and even the looking glass. As a final flourish, he did a rendition of all the songs. The solo act was a galvanising moment for the animators. “By the end of it,” writes author Stanley McChrystal, “no-one was in any doubt that they were embarking on something new and genre-defining.” But Walt’s fanaticism didn’t end there. Soon his commitment to the story would steer his studio perilously close to bankruptcy. The Snow White tale itself was an archaic German folk fable that had almost vanished from the oral tradition when Disney discovered it. In the original version, The Dwarves were nondescript accessories, not the gang of quirky individuals we’ve come to know and love. Though it would lead to costly delays, Disney made the risky yet game-changing decision to give each dwarf a distinct personality. This stroke of genius ensured unprecedented audience engagement. Suddenly people saw a little of themselves in the story and, as they ventured further into the yarn, found relief, even hope, in the film’s uplifting message. As one journalist perceptively observed: Snow White cast a comforting and even optimistic counter-narrative to the militant and hate-filled overtures of World War II. The Success of Snow White showed once again, that audiences cared less about the technology that goes into a film than they do about the story that comes out of it. Stories wield extraordinary and primal power. As screenplay writer Craig Mazin points out, “They are an antidote to the shapeless, chaotic nature of the world that surrounds us, providing clarity amidst the chaos of competing signals”. This begs the question: what possible application do they have in the workplace? Until next time folks...


Leaders: Myth and Reality. McChrystal, Eggers and Mangone Do Story: Bobette Buster Scriptnotes: A Podcast by Craig Mazin and John August

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