There’s a small agency in Melbourne, Australia called Anecdote. They use stories and storytelling to help businesses change and adapt, develop their strategies and undertake other manoeuvres that call for some plumbing of the corporate psyche.
I met one of the Anecdote team in Edinburgh just before Christmas. Kevin Bishop is a former RBS executive who went to live on the other side of the world so that he could follow his new-found vocation as a business storyteller. An energetic and engaging chap in a smart suit, he had none of that whiff of the smoke-filled tepee that one sometimes associates with storytellers. Quite the opposite, everything about him suggested that Anecdote does serious work with some big global players, thank you very much.
We talked about what stories mean to people in business, and I was pleased to find that we shared a distaste for the recent rash of business ‘fables’ like Squirrel Inc and Who Moved My Cheese, which seem lumbering and contrived and largely devoid of the most basic ingredient of storytelling – the ability to create in the reader an emotional connection with the characters. Frankly, I don’t care enough about what happens to the wretched squirrels or mice to want to read beyond chapter one. These stories have been created in service of a message and, as such, have all the imaginative flair and pathos of a Pyongyang press release.
Anecdote’s skill is in using real stories, often gathered from the dustiest, most neglected corners of businesses: priceless nuggets of organisational knowledge held in the head of one old security man who is about to retire, when they will be lost forever; a simple story of human behaviour recounted by a lowly office worker that changes management attitudes; personal stories that help colleagues understand one another better and bring teams together, and so on. These are stories – I know from my own work with clients and the work we do through Dark Angels – that have the power to change things because they have true human resonance.
Real stories like these are things to be shared, and the more they are shared the more powerful they become. Anecdote publish an e-newsletter in which they generously share much of what they come across in the course of their business. There’s a fascinating item in the current issue about a study by a team of neuroscientists at Princeton University who have discovered that when you put someone through an fMRI scanner as they are telling a personal story, then play back the story to a series of subjects as they in turn go through the scanner, the same bits of the brain light up – in other words, the storyteller’s and listeners’ brains fall into sync. Further, while some listeners’ brain patterns show a short lag as they catch up with the story, others’ actually precede those of the teller because they are predicting where the story will go. And finally, those listeners who do most predicting also score highest in the subsequent comprehension test.
Science, it seems, is starting to demonstrate what we know intuitively – that stories allow us not only to connect powerfully and deeply with one another, but also to absorb information very efficiently. If this helps businesses to overcome their fear of something they tend to see as alarming and unmeasurable, and move away from a slavish devotion to so-called objectivity, then three cheers for science.