This has been a year of stories – a year in which I’ve come to appreciate like never before the extent to which we lead our lives by, with and through stories. They provide the glue that holds us together, the framework that keeps us standing up, the energy that keeps us moving forward, and the mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected.
In the business world, stories and storytelling have been the current, though much misunderstood, buzz for a year or two now. Each month sees the appearance of some new title on the management or marketing shelves, explaining how the organisations that tell the best stories are the ones that will conquer all. As I’m writing this, a Christmas newsletter comes in from Australian storytelling agency Anecdote, declaring that 2013 is the year that storytelling in business has gone mainstream.
The principle is sound. One of the paradoxes of our age is that we are both more connected and more disconnected than we have ever been. In the tsunami of virtual relationships to which we’re all exposed, it becomes more and more difficult to find our personal bearings. The commercial brands that tell the stories we relate to – the Apples and Innocents and Howies, for example – offer us convenient touchstones, whether we buy their goods or work for them. They are high priests of the new era and they help us define ourselves.
For all that, there are many more who have yet to grasp that story is more than just a cool label one can attach to a tired press release, a dull case study, a limp product launch or a lacklustre marketing campaign in the hope that it will suddenly spring to life and work miracles. My fellow writer Tim Rich recently wrote an excellent blog about what a story is and what it isn’t. You can read it here.
The story of the organisation or brand is one thing. The stories of the individuals within it are another, although of course not unrelated. My interest leans increasingly towards the latter. What stories do the people who run businesses tell about themselves, or allow to be told about them, that have an authentic ring and encourage others to trust them, to follow them, to be persuaded by them?
What stories are people telling in the workplace or the canteen, that their leaders should be listening to in order to understand their businesses better? And what are the stories about themselves and their work that these colleagues are telling one another? Each time I sit in a room with a group of people sharing simple anecdotes from their own lives, I’m amazed at the power stories have to connect us on the most basic human level. They join us at the core. (And they bring together teams like nothing else.)
I’ve had the opportunity to explore all these aspects of story this year. Running workshops for businesses and cultural organisations, I’ve witnessed the way stories can help people reconnect with the purpose, the soul of their organisation. Writing stories for clients I’ve found myself thinking harder than ever about what constitutes truth and authenticity in the business world.
On Dark Angels courses we’ve looked at how telling stories forces one to use a more energetic and imaginative form of language. And as one of the 15 co-authors of the Dark Angels collective novel, now titled Keeping Mum and scheduled for publication in April, I’ve experienced the challenges and pleasures of collaboratively creating a story as a work of fiction.
But stories don’t just connect us to one another. They connect us to ourselves. And this year, with The Stories We Tell, the series of workshops my wife Sarah and I have started running together, it has been like peeling away another layer of the onion.
By offering people time, a safe space and a little guidance, we encourage them to look afresh at personal stories that have often become as familiar as their own skins, yet may no longer have the currency they once did, or have become part of another story, or have come over time to mean something quite different. By revisiting these stories, people have found that they can reconnect with lost, or discover new, aspects of themselves that can be liberating, empowering, energising and creatively fulfilling.
I wrote recently that I see stories increasingly as maps of the human heart. In this season of gatherings and the stories that flow from them, my resolution for 2014 is to hone my map-reading skills, and to help anyone else who shares their story with me to do likewise.