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20 May. 2014 | Comments (0)

There is an increasing amount being written about the use of storytelling as a powerful leadership tool. For example, an article in Fast Company, How Twitter Is Reshaping The Future Of Storytelling, examined using Twitter as a way to “short burst” your story to a set of followers. Even big-name stars like Kevin Spacey recently spoke about the power of storytelling at an IBM conference. Everyone seems to be in on the movement to learn how to communicate by creating a compelling narratives. The truth is, however, that storytelling is an ancient art, as old as recorded history itself. From the epic poems of ancient Greece to the stories of African tribal cultures, the ability to pass a story down from generation to generation is a key component of transmitting culture.

We often speak of the “above the water line” aspects of a culture that we can experience – language, art, music, dress, architecture, and so on. We speak less about the stories that are transmitted, and what they might really mean to someone trying to understand culture. In fact, stories may be one of the most meaningful ways of quickly understanding what lies “below the water line.” Why might this be the case?

• Stories are allegories, and allegories transmit context – One of the key steps to becoming culturally competent is to understand the “context” of a culture – values, beliefs, assumptions, non-verbals, history, traditions – things that cannot often be explained in a direct or explicit manner. Stories are full of allegorical information (think of the parables in western religious scripture or the words of Confucious – even the “lives” of the Greek gods are allegories for broader truths), and as such are a rich vehicle for transmitting the diversity and depth of a culture’s context.

• Characters help us create better generalizations –  Often, we struggle with the contradictory information we will come across in a new culture. Behaviours seem to be all over the map, and we will encounter a diversity within a culture that may make it hard for us to understand what may really be important about that particular society.  Look to the characters in stories for a cue.  Think about some of the great stories in U.S. tradition – rugged individualists who make their mark by the force of their drive and energy. While not every U.S. citizen fits this profile, it certainly offers insight into what drives much of the way Americans have behaved over the past 250 years. 

Conversely, I encountered a different archetype in some of the stories from my wife’s native country, Hungary – that of an embedded class system that provides both structure and restriction in the daily lives of citizens. I experienced this cultural attribute through the many characters who represent authority figures – political, religious, and social – all of whom appear regularly in Hungarian stories.  Again, not an absolute portrayal of the culture, but a potentially important set of data points.

• We listen better to stories – There is a great deal of research around cognition and understanding that demonstrates how people listen more attentively to a well-told story than to facts, figures, reports, and logic.  While all of these have their place, it is important to remember that the listener matters, and that if our goal is to communicate, we need to add the element of story to the other aspects of presentation that we may have already mastered.

So what to do? Stay tuned! In the next post, we will explore some methods for creating your own story to improve the way you transmit what is important to you and your culture.


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  • About the Author:David Lange

    David Lange

    David Lange is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, David supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, resear…

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