It’s the Story, Stupid

I work at a world leading drama school and as you would expect, it’s an institution full of stories. Which is lucky, as for some time now, storytelling has been at the forefront of countless organisations’ learning needs.

Stories are the new black

Storytelling is perceived to be a skill that if unlocked properly, will release the full potential of the team in question. It will allow people to connect to clients, influence internally, sell more, create stronger relationships, buy more efficiently, create more, build more, even make a better cup of coffee. You name the challenge and I’ll find you an organisation who thinks that storytelling is the answer.

But is it really? I think that the perception of what storytelling is, and the issue it’s addressing is often skewed.

Definitions

Let’s look at the word. It’s a compound noun made up of “story” and “telling”. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it “The activity of telling or writing stories”. That’s straightforward enough. So let’s look at its component parts.

The first is “story”. Turning again to the OED we learn that story is:

  • An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.

and

  • An account of past events in someone’s life or in the development of something.

So here we have two rich descriptions of what a story is. The first involving events or people and the idea of stories being fun (entertainment). The second involving a fundamental component of story, change. These are ideas that have substance and weight.

Now let’s look at the other part; “telling”. Going back to the OED we find that telling is: (after a teller at a bank) “A person who tells something.” So far, so uninspiring. And yet the telling part of the story is the thing that makes it immediate, come alive and matter to the people who are hearing it. For me this gets to the very heart of the storytelling conundrum.

Separating stories and their telling

Stories and their telling are two separate things. When leaders say, “I want my people to tell better stories”, they think they are asking for people who can create and find a story in the material they have available to them. That’s certainly part of it but it’s actually the easier part, one. that can easily be learnt researching story structure on Google. What they really mean is I want my people to be able to tell the story in a way that connects with people, and this is much harder to do well. It’s also the part we generally pay less attention to. Ask yourself how much time you spend preparing your content compared to practising its delivery?

My experience is that organisations place more value on the cerebral act of story creation than they do on the practical act of delivery. I’m not discounting the value of the former but without the latter, we won’t get heard.

The next time you think about the need for a story, ask yourself, is it really a story that will solve it, or do I simply need people to connect? A story might be the perfect way to do it, but in itself, it’s probably not the answer; what you really need is someone to tell it.

Charlie Walker-Wise is Client Director and Tutor at RADA in Business, London.

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