David Barry, NZ — Storytelling as Strategey

Helen: How did you get interested in story as a communication tool?
David: I am attracted to their transformative power. I believe we live our lives by the stories we tell ourselves and tell others. Change the story and life changes. This is a view I picked up several years ago from David Epston, co-founder with Michael White (in Adelaide) of narrative therapy. As an organisational change consultant and change management lecturer, I find the approach immensely appealing. Organisations often seem to run on a few core narratives. Epston & White’s narrative change methods offer profound ways for organizations to restory themselves.

Helen: In which areas of business life do you see story as an effective strategy? (apart from the advertising industry). Do you see a company benefitting from hearing the stories staff may tell of their role in and perception of, the company? And how?

David: Stories are a double-edged sword. Because they are so fundamentally a part of what it means to be human, they have a great deal of power (especially when fashioned by an expert teller). In organisations, this power is often used to seduce, to lull dreamy employees into thinking they’re part of some great cause. I think of many global companies which spin a tale of the corporate family:
‘Come join our team. Work hard and we will give you the kind of family life you couldn’t find elsewhere.’ It is a hypnotic and convincing narrative ‘we work hard right up to when we’re given our severence notice (which is always such a shock. ‘You wouldn’t fire your brother or mother. Why are you firing me?’).

On the other hand, stories have the power to release and change; if new story elements can be introduced into a problem-saturated narrative, remarkable things can happen. Where do these new story elements come from? I find the best ones come from that which was previously silenced – the forgotten story remnants left on the company cutting board.

If these elements – these points of difference – can be given life and turned into what literary theorist, Charles Baxter, calls a counterpoint narrative, there’s a good chance that existing, but dysfunctional company stories can be changed. So in this way, getting staff to engage in storywork can be very beneficial.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that storytelling rights should be given to everyone in an organisation, and not just the PR group or the top executives. I think this makes for less insular and more adaptive organizational functioning.

Helen: Can you see the stories told by people chosen at random in the electorate, about the political party governing a country, effectively assisting in the planning of future policy strategies? And how?

David: I would guess that they could help, especially if they were listened to in an open way (much easier said than done however). Perhaps what Bakhtin called – dialogue’ could happen. Instead of me telling you my – mono-logic’ and you telling me yours, a dia-logic – one informed by our careful listening and taking in of each other’s story – could be created. An interesting possibility.

Helen: We use some traditional stories as ways to introduce discussion points for our seminars, have you any stories of instances where you have had success in this way?

David: If, by traditional stories, you mean ancestral or culturally historic ones, then no. However, I often use stories in the classroom to illustrate themes I can’t get at any other way. One I like to tell concerns ways of learning. A well known marine biologist had just started working with an eager graduate student. The student, anxiously awaiting all those pearls of wisdom, was stunned when the biologist said ‘Here’s a fish and there’s a tablet. Write down whatever you see and I’ll be back in a few hours.’

‘See?’ said the student. ‘What’s there to see? That’s one dead fish.’

With time however, the student noted how the scales lay and made some guesses about their functions. He did the same with the rest of the fish. Later, the biologist came back and congratulated the student. He then left again, saying he’d be back in a few days. The fish turned ripe (what’s that saying about guests and fish after three days?) and the student had filled the tablet with notes. As it turned out, many of his conclusions accorded with what other expert biologists had written. The course of his studies for the next few years was set. The story works well. Most students after hearing it stop looking to me for all the answers and begin studying their own organizational – fish,’ notebooks in hand.

Helen: You are interested in story as it can be used in therapy. Care to comment?

David: I think my answers to your first two questions capture my views on this. I would add that from where I stand in the organizational research community, we are just beginning to take the narrative turn – moving away from the logico-scientific view towards a storied one. This is both exciting and threatening.

A number of very heated debates are now springing up between leading theorists and speakers. Some are saying that all we’ve learned about management over the last hundred years is simply artful rhetoric. And of course others are denouncing such views as poppycock. The field is more interesting than it has been in years.

David Barry, Ph.D.
Management & Employment Relations Dept., University of Auckland; Private Bag 92019 Auckland, New Zealand email: d.barry@auckland.ac.nz