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

Storytelling in Organizations: Larry Prusak
IV. The attributes of stories

I..     Let’s talk a little about the attributes of story. We talked about categories of stories. I thought it might be useful to talk about: what are the attributes of a story? I think it’s an important question when you’re a sort of a professor manqué. I think all of us are. 


   One attribute is certainly endurance. Stories endure. Some of these stories changje a bit but they go on for thousands or maybe even several thousand of years. Some stories in organizations endure a long time too. There are real durable stories. I’ve heard tales of Tom Watson in IBM that constantly come back and back again. The endurance value of stories is very interesting. The stories are the same. Sometimes the name changes. Or the circumstances change. But the behavioral lessons

are the same. Within organizations. To say nothing about culture and society. There, the endurance rate seems to be extraordinarily hardy. Stories about those wicked people across the river. There’s a Nobel Prize-winning author, Ivo Andric , who wrote a wonderful book called The Bridge on the Drina*. It really talks about the stories of the Serbs and Croats and Montenegrists tell about each other. A wonderful rich novel. How enduring these stories really are, how rich, and how it forms the people who hear them. And it’s true in organizations as well. So I think that endurance is important.


   Another characteristic is salience. How much punch does the story have? And what goes into the punch? I think what goes into salience is wit, and succinctness, and emotional power. Three things that make a story very salient. It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s moving. Marshall McLuhan said, “Anyone who thinks there’s a big difference between entertainment and education knows nothing about either subject.” (Laughter) I’m not sure that’s true, but it has some truth to it. 

   So there's wit: it has to be funny. And succinctness: the story has to be short enough so that others can remember it. All of us know people who tell long-winded stories, shaggy dog stories. My wife has a cousin, a very nice woman, who tells stories that have no point. (Laughter) She’s a very nice woman and you wait for the point. You wait for the shot but it never comes. They have no salience. They have no point. And there’s no emotional power. 

    We talk about stories that have emotional power. “This guy did this one time in this organization and he was fired!” There’s emotional power there. “I’d better not do that or I’ll be fired!” Or: “This person did this and got promoted.” Then I think: “Well, maybe I should do that! That’s the way to get promoted.” Stories have real emotional punch. And without that punch, they are less likely to be salient. 


   Another important aspect of stories is sensemaking, their explanatory ability. Did the story explain something, how you should behave? Why an event occurred? Why an event will occur in the future? The explanatory power of stories: “we did this project and this is what happened”. If it is logical and it makes sense to you, if it’s true to your own experiences, which is a very important category of things. 

   Stories must be true to one’s experience. If someone told me that they acted in one hundred percent altruistic way, just spent all the time helping others, if they were the CEO of a company, I would know that’s not true. It would not be true to my experience as to how organizations in America work. And no one I know would believe something like that. Maybe somewhat altruistic but not totally altruistic. 

   So a story has to be true to one’s own sense of how things work. There’s an “ought-ness” to stories. There is a prescriptive normative value to stories. They mean: “Do this and that will occur.” It’s part of that salience. 


   And the final point is comfort level. Are you comfortable with this story? Does this story not only ring true to your experience, but actually feel good? Even if it is a story about hate, or some wicked tale, does it feel right? Is it true to what you have experienced and does it reconfirm what you already felt? 

   Now these are attributes of stories that contribute to their spread, their endurance, their value, how useful they are to an organization.

* The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric (Lovett F. Edwards, translator, Phoenix, reprinted 1984 by University of Chicago Press). Ivo Andric (1892-1975) was a writer of Serbo-Croatian novels and short stories who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. Andric's literary career spanned some 60 years. Before World War II, he was known primarly for short stories set in his native Bosnia. Andric made his reputation as a novelist with the Bosnian trilogy (The Bridge on the Drina, Bosnian Chronicle, and The Woman from Sarajevo), which appeared practically simultaneously in 1945. Andric's writings are dominated by a sense of Kierkegaardian pessimism and personal isolation. "In a thousand different languages, in the most varied conditions of life, from century to century... the tale of human destiny unfolds, told endlessly and uninterruptedly by man to man."
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 Larry Prusak 
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