Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

  A dialogue

   “Were you there?” she asked.
   “No, I wasn’t,” he said.
   “You missed it, too?” she said.
   “Yes, I had to be in another city,” he said. “I was in Pittsburgh.”
   “This was a pity,” she said. “Anything significant?”

   “No, just business,” he said. 
  “You couldn’t have skipped it?” she said.
   “I’d made commitment to be with this client,” he said.
   “A client?” she said. “Not just any client,” he said. “An important client.”
   “Oh well, that’s different, then,” she said. “But on the weekend?”
   “It was the only time we could meet,” he said.
   “And was it worth it?” she said.
   “They renewed their contract with us, if that’s what you mean,” he said.
   “It means a ton of money, I suppose,” she said.
   “Money’s not everything,” he said. “But you missed it too?”
   “I was out of the country,” she said. “But I heard about it. My friend, Seth, told me about it.”
   “Seth was there?” he asked.
   “Some of the time,” she said. “He told me what he heard, but he wasn’t there the whole time, and he couldn’t give me a very clear account. I’ve asked a few others who were there, like Lesley, and her friend. I’m gradually developing a kind of composite picture of it, a kind of collage.”
   “But I mean, what was it?” he asked. “A symposium? Or a workshop? Or an event? A kind of happening?”
   “All of the above,” she said.
   “I keep hearing about it.” he said. “I mean, a couple of people giving a talk and instantly the world is different? Is that really believable.”
   “It was announced as being about storytelling,” she said. “Storytelling is going to be the passport to the 21st Century.”
   “That’s what I heard,” he said. “And they meant that to be taken seriously?”
   “The Smithsonian is a serious institution, isn’t it?”
   “You don’t think it’s just a wee bit pretentious?” he said. “I mean, storytelling as the passport to the 21st century? Just think about it for a minute. The passport to the whole 21st century which after all hasn’t yet happened. I mean, of all the things that could be the passport to the 21st century, like science, or technology, or genetics, or computers, or communications, or miniaturization, these people were saying that something as old-fashioned as storytelling was going to be the passport to the success in the 21st century.”
   “That’s right,” she said.
   “I mean, it’s outrageous,” he said. 
   “Virtually absurd?”
   “You’re right, of course, it is absurd,” she said, “But you know what Einstein once said: If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
   “In that case,” he said, “I suppose we should get our news from the National Enquirer, and invest in the stock market based on our horoscopes. Let’s bring back witchcraft and examine the entrails of a goats and consult the oracle at Delphi whenever we’re faced with a question. There’s no end of absurd ideas around.”
   “I think what Einstein meant,” she said, “was that any genuinely new or revolutionary idea is going to sound counter-intuitive when you first hear it. So you need to set aside this initial hostility to the newness of the idea and give it a chance to marinade a little and see whether, once you’ve got used to it, it doesn’t begin to sing a little, to resonate a little, and finally you start to get a sense of harmony in the whole scheme of things. I think that’s what he meant. But it takes time.”
   “Try me,” he said. “I’d like to find out.”
   “I’m not sure I know myself,” she replied.
   “You’re not giving a very clear account yourself now,” he said.
   “I haven’t really begun yet,” she said.
   “Now,” he said. “Now, you’re trying to make fun of me?” 
   “No,” she said. “I’m struggling myself to understand what narrative is all about. I’ve only been studying it for several years. I’m just beginning to scratch the surface.”
   “And did this symposium help?” he asked.
   “It sparked a large number of thoughts,” she said. “And sent my mind hurtling down new pathways. If you call that help, yes, it helped.” 
   “Why don’t you tell me what happened?” he said.
   “It would take a while,” she said. 
   “Why don’t you begin?” he asked.
   “Are you sure you have the time?” she asked.
   “It’s still early,” he said with a smile. “At dawn here down by the river, can you think of anything better to do? We’ve got all day and all night. So why are you making me wait?”
   As they walked together by the side of the river, she turned to him and said. “You promise you’ll listen to the whole thing?”
   “I promise,” he said.
   “You wont’ go off and answer emails, or search the web, or anything like that?”
   “I’m all yours.”
   “I’ve told this story before,” she said. “I need to know you’ve got the time. I enjoy talking about it, providing I have someone who’s willing to listen. This is different from your business talk, and with its stress and pressure, and you run around the world and accomplish nothing. You might think me a poor thing, with no job and no career to speak of, and you’re probably right.”
         “Stop running yourself down,” he said. “You know I don’t have a low opinion of you. So why are you going on like this, as if to apologize in advance for what you have to say? Why don’t we get on with the story.”
   “Fine then,” she said. “It was like this. You know I’m going to have to describe it from the beginning, just as it was described to me, by so many different people.
Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Stephen Denning 
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