Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A bit more on storytelling.

I've been asked to give a talk on storytelling down at my clients. I recognize that "the narrative of storytelling" is all the rage today but for the life of me I am baffled by this. I hate the phrase storytelling. It has become a cliche. Meaningless and small. People start saying things like "I told the story of my week through my timesheet."

In any event, here's how I'm beginning my talk.

First with a picture of the original text of the world's oldest written book, "Gilgamesh."

And then the sort of text we are given to understand in meetings today.

To me, Gilgamesh above and Excel below look similar.
There are rows and rows of text. Enough to blur your eyes whether you are reading in the desert light of ancient Sumer or by the purple light of skyscraper fluorescence.

Stories exist to make complicated, almost incomprehensible things, easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to act upon. The best stories have a mnemonic quality to them. They have underlying their detail and complexity a simple to understand quality.

For instance, a scholar whose name I've forgotten said something like this: "All creation myths have either gods descending from the sky or rising from the mud." I had a professor in graduate school that summarized all of Western though through one sentence from John Huston's "African Queen." We do not need to make this complicated. Though that's what we do best.

There have been a spate of articles of late about the future of the American economy and where the next breakthrough is coming from. According to the "Times" the next big jobs in America will be held by people who can look at petaflops of data and find a story.

Truth be told, they don't even have to find a story. They really just have to find data that supports a story they've already conceived. That's what great leaders in history have been able to do. Think Winston Churchill in 1940, turning Dunkirk into a victory.

What I've noticed through the years--years of work and years of raising my daughters--is that institutions, workplaces, schools, government, clubs, etc. impose a rigidity on their subject. They expect a certain amount of soul sublimation. My kids went through this in high school. They were academicized to the point where their writing sounded like other academics, not themselves.

In other words we accept the speech, verbal and semantic patterns and vocabulary of the dominant institution. All of a sudden, we are on a plane and we are calling the thing in front of us "a tray table."


When you let someone control your language you let them control your mind. It's really that simple.

So try to tell stories that have some you-ness in them.


Sam Engel said...

I'm left wondering what the sentence was from The African Queen? And what was the interpretation?

Sam Engel said...

Sorry for the punctuation error. No question mark on the first sentence there.

george tannenbaum said...

It was Rose (Katherine Hepburn) saying to Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart): "Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we all must rise above."