Storytelling 
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

The audience tell their stories 

 Steve Denning: Now weíre going to have a change of pace, and weíre going to see a video. And this really is a stunning video. Katalinaís put it together. Itís the story of Ben Zander, the orchestra conductor and his thoughts on where things are going. 

     But there are two reasons why we are showing you this video.  One is simply that itís a stunning video. 

    But secondly, weíre using it to illustrate a way of nurturing community. Many people in conferences

and other organizations ask me: ďHow do you nurture community? How do you create communities? How do you get them to flourish?Ē 

     One of the ways we do that is something that I learnt from Seth Kahan whoís here in the audience here tonight. What we found was that if you have a meaningful story that is told to a group of unconnected individuals, and you ask those unconnected individuals to respond publicly with their stories in relation to the initial story, that group of unconnected individuals quickly starts to see themselves as a group and a community. 

    So what we are going to do is the following: we are going to see this video for twenty-six minutes. And then Iím going to pass the microphone around the audience. And if you donít want to say anything, just pass it on to somebody else. If youíd like to share anything in your life that responds to this story, then youíll have a chance to share that with us, and weíll all listen to what happens. But first weíre going to see the video.

THE ART OF POSSIBILITY VIDEO

(Audience applause)

Steve Denning: Isnít that wonderful? 

Audience: Yes!

Steve Denning: Isnít that absolutely stunning! Itís the story of Ben Zander. Itís a wonderful story. And itís wonderfully told. 

    And weíre going to hear more from Katalina tomorrow about how she makes these wonderful stories. 

    But now weíre going to do something quite different. Weíre going to hear your story.
And so what Iím going to ask you to do is to take the microphone. If you have something youíd like to share with us, then share it with us. If you have nothing to share at this moment, thatís fine. Just pass it on to somebody else, someone beside you, someone behind you. And we will hear for the next twenty minutes or so, your stories. 
Iím afraid this lavaliere microphone is not ideal for passing around. (laughter)

John Seely Brown: Did you switch it on? Let me. Try it now. Yes!

Steve Denning: Would anyone like to start? (laughter) Yes, over here.

ON POSSIBILITY AND THRIVING 

Therapist (male): My first response is to be very thankful. Twenty-nine years ago last week, I had an experience that I call ďthrivingĒ. And for the last twenty-six years, Iíve been working on a book of possibility, or ďthrivalĒ. And this is such a boost, and such a clear pathway for all the things that go with thriving. The word ďpossibilityĒ isnít over. And I am very moved and grateful to have had this experience.

THE MASTER  STORYTELLER DOES EXACTLY WHAT A CONDUCTOR DOES

Professional storyteller (female): Can I start? Is this the mike? (Laughter)

Participant: Donít swallow it! (Laughter)

Professional storyteller (female): Am I supposed to talk close to this? I should know this, as Iím a professional storyteller. I do it for entertainment, for education, for making a difference, one at a time. And that video was absolutely wonderful. Because I go into this with both feet cold. And the master storytellers do exactly what the conductor does. Once you make that connection with the audience, one-on-one, be it adults or children, itís just an absolutely marvelous experience. And so, Iím just validating your video. Iím like the cellist. Or the singer. You know, I think Iíve finally got it.
(Twenty seconds silence as the microphone is passed around)

IN THE PANDEMONIUM, SUDDENLY THERE WAS SILENCE

Participant (female):  I was struck by listening to the music and the idea of how important the music is. It reminded me of just a couple of weeks ago when I was in New York and I was rushing around and I was on my way to the lower East Side and I had to make a transfer in the subway and I went down one level. And there was just pandemonium. The train was late. It had been diverted. I donít know what it was. Huge commotion. And then I heard some music and I glanced over to a place on the platform where there was a guy who had set up some kind of musical instrument that I hadnít seen before. It was like an oriental thing that he played with two sticks, and he started to play. And after about two minutes, maybe less, the entire platform was silent. There wasnít a sound. Except the music. Theyíd made a circle around him and then suddenly I heard the train. And the train came and I got on the train. And I took that music with me.

KIDS WITH SHINING EYES

Teacher (female): I am one of these academic people who teach in university and my field is childrenís adolescent literature. And one of the topics that I am teaching right now is literacy through storytelling. And we are working with a number of school districts sending out graduate students. Weíre doing research on this, and weíre trying to do in-services with teachers to show them how to get excitement into their classes. And we had a wonderful experience last spring. We invited eight hundred kids to come in. Iím at Texas A&M university and we use the Bush library there and weíve put tends all over the place and weíve got kids from all over the state coming in the most exciting one was when my undergraduates prepared the stories and they were telling them to some kids who were learning disabled and these kids had shining eyes and they said it was the first time that they had gotten excited about a story. Youíve got no idea what that did to my undergraduates. Because now they know they can go out and they can be really profound and excellent teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

INSPIRING SHINING EYES

Participant (male): Hi. I know what it feels like, not only to have shining eyes, but to create shining eyes. And for people who have not told stories yet, it feels just as good to give the shining eyes as to have them.

THE WAY HE MOVES HIS BODY

Participant (male): I like the music in this video. But what I like even more are the motions that the guy did. I think itís an integral part of the whole experience here, the way he moves his body, the way he enters into the spirit of the music, just by his motions. It reminded me that there are many forms of storytelling. Storytelling in writing is very different from storytelling as narration. And I think that the most striking thing to me is the body motions.

IF ONLY I HAD SEEN THIS A YEAR AND A HALF AGO

CEO (male): Yes, as I was watching this marvelous movie, this film, I was thinking that I am very sorry that I saw it now and not about a year and a half ago. I have been with a consulting company here in the District of Columbia for eighteen years. The first seventeen years, I was in various positions and then the last year, I have been the CEO. And my first seventeen years were fine, I enjoyed them. The last year was hell. (Laughter) It was certainly the least satisfying year in my career at that company and seeing this movie, I certainly donít understand all of what I should, but I think that when I was the CEO, I looked at myself as being a problem solver. I was the number one problem solver for the company. And thatís not a particularly satisfying or interesting way to spend oneís time. So I wish I had seen this a little bit earlier and maybe I would have done a better job as the CEO. I thank the creator, Katalina, for the movie. It really was marvelous. (Applause)

THE AUDIENCE BECOMES PART OF THE PERFORMANCE

Participant (male): As I watched this movie, I recalled that I had tried to learn a little bit about flamenco music. It evolved as a form of music where you have a singer, a dancer, a musician, and some music. But it was also in terms of a very small audience. The audience became part of the performance. And thatís exactly what the film is showing here, the audience involvement. Maybe the closest musicians that Iíve seen do that is the rockabilly singers, if youíve ever heard them.

THE METAPHOR OF MY LIFE: MUSIC

Participant (female):  This is really exciting for me and it reminds me of a time about fifteen years ago. I belonged to a group in an organization Ė actually the World Bank Ė it met every Friday morning and it had various things happen. But at some point, everybody that belonged to the group had to tell their story. And I was very apprehensive as it came to be my turn. And I thought about everyone else who had been telling their story and then something really hit me and that was that everyone whoíd told their story had some kind of unconscious metaphor behind their story. Maybe it was a production chart. Maybe it was a game that they were winning. Something like that. Then that got me thinking. What could be my metaphor? And I really wondered if I had one too. And I noticed this is the way that this film began, with this discussion of metaphors. And I came to the idea that really the only thing that fit my life was music. And this metaphor was really exciting. It had a transforming effect on my life and what I did after that. So this was wonderfully resonating for me.

LEAD FROM WHERE YOU STAND

Employee (male):  Iíve worked for a number of different organizations and companies and I guess that when I first started to watch this movie, I thought how much I would like to have a CEO like Ben Zander, with that kind of inspiration. But then as I watched this a little bit longer, the quote ďLead from where you standĒ really came through. And that you donít need to wait for a CEO to watch this kind of movie. You can really be inspired and take the lead yourself.

IF THE VOLUNTEERíS EYES DONíT SHINE, THEY DONíT STICK AROUND

Non-profit employee (female):  For the past thirty seven years, I have been an employee of a large non-profit. Iíve retired recently, just this last week, and I have started whatís going to be a career, a second career as a volunteer. And I sure many of you have done volunteer work for different organizations. And you know, if the volunteerís eyes donít shine, they donít stay around very long. So this is really exciting. And Iím looking forward to taking these ideas back to my organization and to whatís coming tomorrow.

BASS PLAYERS ARE NEVER UP FRONT

Musician (male): Iím a musician part-time, and I can definitely say I wish I had worked with Ben Zanderís all the time. But like most leaders, Iím not quite up to that caliber. I think that itís really great to see that example. As far as the idea of leading from where you stand, I am a bass player and the bass players are never up front. And usually most people donít know what the role is. But you can always feel a good bass player. You can always feel a weak bass player. And I think it just goes to show that you can lead from whatever position youíre in.

THE FILM IS FUNDAMENTALLY MISLEADING

Participant (male): I find the film fundamentally misleading. It really reflected a message in which the medium dominated over what the message was. The medium very clearly showed a leader who was hyper-kinetic. I doubt that one in fifty people in this room would aspire to be a hyper-kinetic leader. The film was made because this was very filmable. What would have been far more constructive would have been somebody demonstrating those principles in a not-particularly filmable way, in a more sedate, organized business environment, in which people behaving the way you and I behave in a normal day. And because the kinetics so dominated the picture, it was really hard to pull out what the significance of those messages would be in what I would call a calmer, and more normal context. So I found the film fundamentally misleading. (Laughter)

Participant (male): My reaction to that is that I think your approach is somewhat logical, as opposed to a story-like approach.

First participant: Itís a curse, I know. (Laughter)

WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK FROM THE HEART

Participant (female): I find that when people speak genuinely and sincerely and from the heart, no matter how they express it, itís going to show in their eyes. I think you can see that in the film.

DOING IT ON ONE BUTTOCK

Office worker (female): I think that I am going to go back to the office and in whichever situation I am in, and Iím going to try to do it on one buttock. (Laughter) 

IíM NOT A READER BUT I CARRY BOOKS AROUND WITH ME

Writing teacher (male):  I found it exciting to see the film because I was just carrying around and in part reading the book, The Art of Possibility, by the Zanders, and I certainly recommend that to everyone because it is an amazing wonderful book that identifies the ideas that we just looked at.  But I also want to say that that idea of, kind of, carrying around books is something that I do. I am not by nature necessarily a reader. So people say, ďSo, what are you carrying around now?Ē (Laughter) I am actually carrying around now John Seely Brownís book. But I also wanted to say that several years ago, I was in a situation where I was in a class that was called, ďFinding your lifeís workĒ and it was a ten week course.  And at the end of nine weeks of the class, what I discovered was that my life work really was teaching possibility. Thatís what I came up with. 

    And then I thought, ďOh, of all the nerve, what the heck does that mean?Ē So at the same time, I had been working as a government contractor. I had worked for three of them and now I was with a fourth one. It was sort of a dead-end road. And I was offered the opportunity to work for another dead-end road. And I said to myself, ďNo, that doesnít fit.Ē So I took that opportunity to step out, and begin teaching possibility. And Iím happy to say that in the past five years as a teacher, as a writing teacher, someone who teaches people how to find their way through information, when they are blockheads like me, people who donít necessarily read, but people who try to find their way through information. Itís been a delight and an exciting adventure and itís been a wonderful story. And I just want to thank all of you guys for this opportunity as well.

CALM AND SEDATE AND POISED SINCE 1959, AND TIRED OF IT

Participant (female): Well, with all respect to the gentleman who felt the film was misleading, Iíve been calm and sedate and poised since 1959. (Laughter) And Iím tired of it. The film looks good to me. (Applause) 

CLOSING COMMENTS

Steve Denning:  Those were wonderful, wonderful comments. 

    And what weíre trying to show you here is that by starting with a moving story, and then having a number of unconnected people tell their own story in relation to the initial story, that we end up sharing many stories in the same room. 

    And as I look around among you now, I see the therapist thriving and writing a book on possibility. I see the teacher who inspired shining eyes. I see the CEO who wished heíd seen the video a year and a half ago. I see the man who thought the film was too flamboyant. And I see the woman who has been poised and sedate since 1959 and who's tired of it. 

    So suddenly, instead of seeing a mass of nameless faces, suddenly a set of real people are leaping out at me. 

    If we could spend a little more time on this, weíd be on our way to becoming a group, a network, a community. Itís just the wonderful power of storytelling to bring people together through a set of shared stories. 

    So thanks very much, Katalina for bringing us this wonderful, wonderful video. (Applause) Thereís much much more tomorrow. Larry on storytelling organizations. John with the scientistís perspective. Iíll talk about storytelling to effect change. And Katalina will be explaining how she does her videos. So weíre call it a day now. Weíll begin again tomorrow.

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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