Springboard Story
 April 12, 2003: Steve Denning
Smithsonian Associates 2003


Steve Denning

Transcript of the April 12, 2003 session at the Smithsonian Associates

Why storytelling?
The problem with future stories
The secret path to the future
The Zambia story
The necessity for a true story
Telling the story in a minimalist fashion
The participants' stories
   Story #1: Promoting diversity
   Story #2: Promoting storytelling at NASA
   Story #3: International contracting
   Story #4: Getting to say "yes"
Paul Costello's commentary

Steve: Now we’re going to move into the final leg of this particular part of the journey. It’s called springboard storytelling – a story that can pick up even a change-resistant organization by the scruff of the neck and hurl it into the future. It’s a form of story that is extremely 

    I live now for the most part in the land of big organizations. Often I am talking to groups of people who, unlike this audience, are not responsive to this kind of subject. They are often wondering, “Why am I here?” Sometimes I have been dragged in by some other part of the organization and they are thinking, “I am in the wrong place! This is the wrong subject! I thought this was meant to be a serious organization. So why are we even thinking about a subject as irrelevant as storytelling?” Some of you may be in similar situations, where your boss, or your boss’s boss, is totally unwilling to mention the word, “storytelling”, let alone spend any time thinking about it. So this is a session dedicated to you. 
    How do you deal with these very skeptical, difficult, even hostile organizational environments, that many of us find ourselves in?
    Well, one of the things that I do is to say: “Let’s look at this morning’s newspaper! You don’t believe storytelling is important? Well let’s check it out in this morning’s newspaper. Not the entertainment section of the newspaper. Let’s look at the business section of the newspaper and let’s look at the financial impact of storytelling today! Last time I did this for a corporate audience happened to be last Monday. So here we were are, the Wall Street Journal, Monday April 7, 2003. 
    What’s the top story? “U.S. forces storm towards Baghdad.” The financial impact of that is massive. When the news from Iraq is positive, the stock market goes up. When the news from Iraq is less good, the stock market goes through the floor. What is different in this country? Nothing! Nothing physically has changed in this country, to have this financial impact. The only thing that has changed is that people are telling each a different story. Massive financial impact. That was last Monday. But if you look at the financial section of the newspaper on any day, you will see, day after day, the massive financial impact on business of storytelling. 
    You can then go on and ask: “Why is this? What is going on? We actually live in an age of discontinuity. Things are not happening in an orderly predictable pattern. We are living in a world of wrenching change. The global economy is being torn apart and transformed before our very eyes. 
As the managements of organizations look out on this world of wrenching change, they see that they are going to have to change. They are going to have to become a different kind of organization if they are to survive. But when they try to explain to their people that everything that they know how to do and love doing has to be turned upside down and inside out, no one wants to hear that message. 
    When you look at how long the heads of organizations have lasted in trying to do this, it’s quite shocking. It used to be that you had a couple of years before you got booted out. Now, here’s the poor head of Xerox, booted out after just 13 months. (laughter) And what was he meant to do in 13 months? First, he had to figure out what to do, then persuade people to do it, then implement it, and get results, all in 13 months? 
    How is he going to do it? He quickly finds out that just giving people reason doesn’t work. (laughter) Then he tends to get into the mode of saying, “Well, you’ve got to do it, or you’re fired!” (laughter) Or maybe simply: “You’re fired anyway. I’m going to get a new group of people to do this!” (laughter) But he finds out that this doesn’t work. He can’t fire all the people. He doesn’t have time to recruit a new group to do it. He has to work with the people he’s got, otherwise he gets fired. So he discovers once again that the traditional approaches to getting change don’t work in this world of wrenching change. 
   What I’m here today to tell you is that there is another way – another way to communicate complex ideas and get people into action, simply, easily, and naturally and it works. And we are 
actually going to do it, right now, right here, this afternoon. Normally, we take a whole day doing this, but we’re going to have a very accelerated process and at least give you a taste of what’s involved in creating springboard stories, that actually work. 
   It’s not just something that works in a workshop. I mean, here we are, off-site, everybody’s friendly, and the talk is about collaboration and innovation. It’s a wonderfully supportive environment. But you go back to your office on Monday morning, and you see a very different world. If it’s anything like the organizations I know, it’s all about cutbacks, and downsizing, and distrust. Springboard stories work not only in these offsite settings. It also works in the wonderful world of big organizations as we’ve come to know and love them. 

   I agree with Madelyn and the person who said here, that future stories are the most important. Why are we bothering to tell stories? Fundamentally, it’s because they pave the way for the future. Obviously, that’s more important than learning about the past. Last year, Booz  Allen did a review of organizational storytelling, and their conclusion was: anything that can ignite and drive desirable change and create a different future for the organization, that is the most powerful use of storytelling in an organization. I agree with that. 

Successful leaders: that’s what they do! They tell stories that lead people into the future. Scenarios, plans, strategies: these are all about future stories. This is the most powerful form of storytelling. 
But, there is a PROBLEM! (laughter) There is a fundamental problem with future stories. They are UNBELIEVABLE! (laughter) They are inherently unbelievable. (laughter) Some of them may be believable when they are told, and some of the future stories we’ve just heard are believable now, although others were so far-fetched that some of you were probably thinking, “Could that ever possibly happen? Probably not.” If you’re in a skeptical hostile environment, the likely reaction is, “No, it’s a pipe dream. That could never happen around here!” 
    This is the problem with future stories. Even if they are believable when they are told, you look in the newspaper tomorrow morning, and you see that something unexpected has happened and then you realize that the future story could not possibly happen in the way that you had imagined it. So future stories are very valuable. But they run into this fundamental problem: they are inherently unbelievable. 
     How do the great leaders get over this problem? Well, they tend to tell evocative stories. 
· Winston Churchill in the Second World War: “We will fight them on the beaches!” Not too clear which beaches, or what we will fight them with since we don’t have any bullets. But the story may be sufficiently evocative to cause a whole nation to resist the Nazis.
· Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream!” Not clear what the details of that dream are, but if the dream is sufficiently evocative, it may be enough to cause a nation to start to redress generations of racial discrimination.
· JFK: “We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade!” The ancient dream of going to the moon. Wow! It may not be too clear how we’re going to do it, but it may be sufficiently evocative that the nation gets its act together and does it.
    So what the great leaders do is tell an evocative story. And if it’s evocative enough, it can move mountains, whole nations. 
BUT, this is very difficult to do. Very difficult to craft an evocative story that can move a skeptical group of people and take them into the future. 
What you’re trying to do with a future story is to get the listener to adopt your future story as their own story. The risk is that if the story is seen as unbelievable, it can lead to an anti-story embodying what the listeners think will happen. So the listeners ends up in the opposite place from where you want them. 
You’re telling a story about how a change idea that could transform the whole world, and you’re hoping that the listeners will agree with that. But what tends to happen in hostile, skeptical, difficult environments is that the listeners think: that could never happen around here and the listeners start to imagine a future story that is the opposite – an anti-story. You tell a very positive story about your idea, and your listener is thinking, “That’s BS. That could never happen around here. We are stuck in a rut. We’ve never been able to change. The management  won’t 
allow it. This is just idle dreaming.” Your story is very positive but the listener’s story is very negative. So this is a real problem with future stories in hostile environments.


   BUT, there is a SECRET PATH TO THE FUTURE! (laughter) And you are about to learn the secret path to the future. (laughter)
   I stumbled on this five or six years ago. When I was working in the World Bank. It began for me in February 1996. Prior to that, I grew up in Australia. I was born in Sydney. I studied psychology and law here at Sydney University. Then I studied in England at Oxford University. And then I joined the World Bank. 
I was a very left brained kind of person (laughter) analytic abstract kind of thinker – sharp, clear, crisp, the very things that big organizations love. And so I climbed up the managerial ladder of the World Bank. By February 1996, I was the Director of the Africa Region. Now the Africa Region handles about a third of the operations in the World Bank. So I was beginning to think that this was a pretty important kind of position. 
And then, as things happen in large organizations, the scene unexpectedly changed in the management and things were not looking too bright for me in the World Bank. (laughter) So I went to the senior management and asked them whether they had anything in mind for me. And they said, “Not really.” (laughter
I pressed them a little as to whether they had really nothing at all for me. And they said finally: “Why don’t you go and look into information?” 
In February 1996, unlike today, information in the World Bank had about the same status in the organization as the garage or the cafeteria. So this was not exactly a promotion that was being offered to me. Essentially, I was being sent to Siberia. 
But I was kind of interested in information and computers, and so I went and looked into information. And I saw a scene that is familiar to anyone working in a large organization. (laughter) We were drowning in information. We were spending a ton of money on it and getting very little in the way of benefits. We couldn’t find anything when we needed it.
And we obviously had to clean this mess up and we were equally obviously going to save a lot of money when we did that. But something else started to become clear to me as I thought about the situation. Even if we fixed up the situation in information, we would still be a rather old-fashioned lending organization. And our future as a lending organization wasn’t looking too bright. 

Many years ago, we had had a virtual monopoly in lending to the less developed countries. Now the scene had changed. Now a whole set of private banks had emerged that were lending far more than the World Bank could ever lend. And they were doing it faster and cheaper and with less conditionality than the World Bank. There were even world-wide campaigns to close the World Bank down. There was a political slogan chanted by protesters, “Fifty years is enough!” “Put this organization out of its misery!” “Close the World Bank down!” So our future as a lending organization was not looking too bright. (laughter
So some of us started to have a different idea. We thought: why not share our knowledge? Over the previous fifty years, we had acquired 
immense expertise as to what worked and what didn’t work in the field of development. We had all this know-how on how to make development happen in countries around the world. But it was very hard to get access to this expertise and know-how. It was very hard to find it. If you were inside the organization and you knew somebody who had the expertise, and could talk to them, you were o.k. But if you didn’t know someone, you were in trouble. And if you were outside the organization, it was practically impossible to get access to the World Bank’s expertise unless you were engaged in a lending operation. 
So there were only very few people around the world who were actually benefiting from the World Bank’s immense expertise. So we started to ask ourselves: why don’t we share our knowledge more widely? Technology was changing and it was now becoming possible for us, if we so chose, to share our knowledge with the whole world. It was becoming possible for us to become a knowledge sharing organization, and in the process, we could be a pretty exciting organization with a bright future.
     So I tried all the traditional methods of explaining the case for change. But no one seemed to be able understand the change idea. I tried charts. I tried reason. Nothing of the things that had been such a strength for me all my life seemed to work. No one seemed to able to grasp the significance of my idea. I was hitting a brick wall.
    And then I stumbled on something else. I would be talking about the future, and the future of the World Bank. Well, the future is obviously going to be different. But how? What will the future look like? “Well,” I said, “the future is going to look like today. Let me tell you about something that happened just a few months ago.”
We are still in early 1996, and I would say something like the following. 

“In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny village in  Zambia logged on to the website for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, and got the answer to a question on how to treat malaria.


    “Now remember: this was June 1995, not June 2015. 
    “And this is not the capital of Zambia, but a tiny small village six hundred kilometers away. 
   “And this was not a rich country: this is Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world.
   “But you know the most important part of this picture for us in the World Bank? The World Bank isn’t in this picture. (laughter) We didn’t have our know-how organized in such a way that we could share our knowledge with the millions of people in the world who make decisions about poverty. But just imagine if we did. Just imagine if we got organized to share our knowledge in that way, just think what an organization we could become!”
   And yes, that did start to resonate. That started to connect with managers. And in fact, it was only later that those managers were able to get to the president of the organization. And on October 1, 1996, at the Annual Meeting of the World Bank, in front of 170 finance ministers, the President of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, announced here in Washington that we were actually going to be doing this thing. We were going to be a knowledge sharing organization, from top to bottom. We are going to become “the knowledge bank”.
Well, that was not the end of the war. That was just the beginning, because the people who had sent me to Siberia suddenly realized, “The man from Siberia is back!” (laughter) And worse than that, he has this strange vision of turning us into a knowledge organization. And he’s somehow co-opted staff and managers and now even the president to pursue this vision. This is bad news!” In effect, they were thinking that this was their worst-case scenario. And that’s when they started using real bullets, instead of rubber bullets in the process. Now there was a chance that this thing might actually happen.
   So in fact, over the next couple of years, we had major struggles,  confrontations, and battles at the upper level of the organization as to what this thing called “knowledge management” was, and how we were going to go about implementing it. I was trying to persuade people to implement the vision that the President had already announced. My experience was that the only thing that carried us through those battles was telling a story, like the Zambia story and other stories, which are described in my book, The Springboard. 
   So I was moving people into the future by telling a story about the past. Telling a story about the past is very easy to do. It happened! It happened in Zambia, in June 1995! Here’s the person it happened to! Go, check it out. Yes, it actually happened. You can’t argue with that. But what is happening is that the listener is imagining a new story. I’m talking about what happened in Zambia when a health worker logged on to the CDC website and got some knowledge. 
   But what I’m hoping is that the listener will be thinking, “Yes, that was neat! I’ve got some knowledge! I could have a website! Lots of people around the world could make use of what I know! Why don’t I do that?”
   Even while I’m still talking, the listener is starting to imagine a new story. So you’re telling a story about the past, which is easy to do. The listener is doing all the hard work. The listener is imagining a future story. This happens extremely rapidly. And because each listener imagines a future relevant to their own situation: so if you have 50 listeners, you suddenly have 50 tailor-made future scenarios exactly crafted to the different needs and desires of the 50 listeners.
   What I discovered was that there was a certain pattern to a story that could spark people into action. I’ll just say a few things about it in the short time we have.

   It’s very important that it be a true story. It’s not a fictional story. It’s a true story, because when you tell one of these stories, one of the first things that happens is that people go and check it out to find out if it actually happened the way I said it happened. And if they find it was true, they race back and announce loudly, “It didn’t happen. It’s just a myth.” Then everyone can relax and go back to the standard ways of doing things.
   I’ve had no success at all with an imaginary story like, “Just think what the World Bank would be like if it adopted knowledge sharing.” The answer to this kind of story is, “That will never happen around here. It might happen in some good organization, but not here in the World Bank.” And if the story is imaginary, that is usually the end of that. But if the story is true, one can say, “This already has happened. It happened right here. Here’s the guy it happened to. Go and check it out. It actually happened.” Then it’s the truth of the story that shakes the listener out of their complacency. They have grapple with the fact that the story actually happened. So maybe it could happen here, after all.
   And it must be authentically true. It’s not just a story that’s factually accurate as far as it goes. An example of a story that is factually accurate but not authentically true is the following:
       "700 happy passengers reached New York after the Titanic’s maiden voyage."
End of story! The story is factually accurate as far as it goes. It omits the detail that the ship sank and 1500 other people drowned. Once that fact becomes clear, then the backlash on the story and storyteller is massive. But the ironic thing is that many, if not most, corporate communications are exactly in this format. They paint a rosy picture of some scene, but just below the surface or just around the corner is some other unedifying fact that, once it becomes known, creates a massive negative impact on the story and the storyteller. If you want to understand why trust levels in big organizations are at their current abysmal levels, you might want to examine these “Titanic stories” which are proliferating in these organizations.

   Most important, Hollywood is right. It's got to have a happy ending. I have had no success in telling a story: “Let me tell you about an organization that didn’t implement knowledge management and it went bankrupt.” No success at all with this kind of story. 
   If if I tell you a story with an unhappy ending, that company that bankrupt because it didn’t implement knowledge management, what seems to be happening is that these ancient parts of the brain, the limbic system kicks in and the message is:  “Fight! Flight! Get out of here! Trouble! Something bad is happening!” and so on. 
   But by contrast, if I tell you a story with a happy ending, what seems to be happening is that the limbic system kicks in with something called an endogenous opiate reward for the human brain, the cortex. Basically, it puts the human brain on drugs. It pumps a substance called dopamime into the cortex and this in turn leads to “a warm and floaty feeling,” the kind of feeling you have after you have just seen a wonderful wonderful movie. And this is the perfect frame of mind to be thinking about a new future, a new identity for yourself or your organization. “Let’s do it.” "O.k. Let's change the organziation!" Whatever! You are ready for anything! That’s why the story has to have a positive tonality.
    So the story is told in a minimalist fashion. You’ll recall that I told you about that health worker in Zambia. Was it a nurse or a doctor? Was it a man or a woman? Was it hot or cold? Was it wet or dry? I didn’t tell you anything about that health worker in Zambia because I didn’t want you thinking about Zambia. I wanted to leave a lot of room in your mind for the little voice in your head to be crafting a story about how you could launch knowledge sharing in your environment. If I tell you all about Zambia, you might get interested in Zambia, instead of crafting your own story.
    In fact, there are two listeners in the room that we need to be thinking about  When I look at someone, I see the physical person in front of me, but there is also, the little voice in the head. And we all know what the little voice in the head is. And if you’re asking yourself, “What is he talking about? What on earth does he mean by ‘the little voice in the head’?”, well, that’s exactly the little voice that I mean! (laughter
   And so there are two listeners. I am talking to you about Zambia. And the little voice in the head may well be saying, “I’ve got all these problems back in my office, my in-box is filling up, I’ve got email to answer. How can I get out of here without causing an international incident!” So the little voice may not be listening at all to what you are talking about. 
    And the conventional view of communications is: let’s just ignore the little voice in the head. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t get in the way and let’s hope that everything goes o.k.  Unfortunately, that often doesn’t happen. The little voice gets busy, and before you know it, the listener is getting a whole new and often unwelcome perspective on what the speaker is talking about.
What I am suggesting to you is something different.  What I am saying is: exploit the little voice in the head. Take advantage of it. Make use of it. And the way that you do that is that you tell a story in a certain way that elicits a second story. The little voice in the head tells another story. In effect, what I am doing is: I am giving the little voice in the head something to do. 
    So when I say, “Let me tell you about something that happened in Zambia, I am  hoping that the little voice in the head is saying, “We’re working in highways. Why couldn’t we do this?” Or if you are working in finance, “Why don’t we do this in finance?” Or if you are working in Latin America, “Why don’t we try this in Latin America?”  In effect, the little voice starts to imagine a new story, a new set of actions for the listener, another kind of future. And if things are going well, the little voice in the head starts to flesh out the picture. It starts to say: “Of course, we would have to have a community. We would need to get organized. We would need budgets to make it happen. And we would have to get more people involved. But why don’t we do it? Why don’t we get on with making this happen?” 
    And when this happens, the little voice is already racing ahead to figure out how to  implement knowledge sharing in the organization. And because the listener has  created the idea, it regards the ideas as his or her own baby. And of course, you love your own baby. You created the idea. It’s yours!
    So I wrote a book about this kind of story, The Springboard, in 2000. In December 2000, I left the World Bank and since then, I’ve been going around coaching various organizations how to use the power of storytelling to get results in their organizations. A lot of big organizations have got pretty interested, even excited about it: GE, Shell, McDonald’s, Bristol Myers Squibb. These companies face huge problems. The world economy is going through these wrenching changes and obviously the companies have to change if they are going to survive. Change is irresistible. But when they start explaining to their staffs that they are now going to have to do things very differently, no one wants to hear this message, when it’s explained in conventional abstract terms
. So change is irresistible but the organization is immovable. The financial impact of the storytelling can be massive. 
       (The participants spend forty minutes crafting their stories.)

Participant storyteller: [Our story is one to encourage, to demonstrate the value of encourage the value of diversity in an organization.]

                In 2001, a government agency was doing final interviews to select a contractor 
                to do diversity training. The question was posed: why should we select you? 
                A junior member of the team, a young black woman raised her hand and said,
               “I’d like to answer. Several years ago, I was working for this company in a 
                very low level position. The President came up to me and asked me, ‘What else 
                do you do?’ Today, I’m sitting at this table. The company was selected. 
                Imagine the richness of the world if everyone asked that question. (applause)

Steve: Positive story, no? Nice link to the future. For me, it may have been stripped of too much detail. (laughter
Participant: No! (laughter
Steve: There are slow learners, you see. (Laughter) You have to test it out on your audience. You should never tell a story for the first time to the executive committee of a big organization. You test it out. There are slow learners like me. And there are quick learners like the people over here. And then you find out what works for you. You see, there is no absolute right answer. It depends on your audience. What do others think? Enough detail? 
Participant: Yes.
Steve: You see, some quick learners over there.
Participant: What was the objective? What was the business problem that you were trying to solve here?
Storytelling participant: We wanted to move the organization from merely saying words about diversity to demonstrate the value of it. There is a lot of talk about these things. We wanted to generate change in behavior.
Steve: You see, you take feedback like this when you’re trying out your story. So here’s a listener who’s having trouble making all the links join up. You test it out further and if you start to get a significant set of feedback like that then you know you need to add a little bit more detail, a little bit more connective tissue, so that the majority of the audience springs into this new future. 


Participant storyteller: (Todd Post) 
Ours is a situation where we’re trying to get the agency that I do storytelling work for, we’re trying to get senior managers interested, believing that storytelling can have an impact on the organization.

     In May 2001, a senior NASA manager, skeptical of the 
     power of storytelling, told a story that was published in 
    the NASA storytelling magazine. Another manager was 
    able to use the story to save NASA half a million dollars 
    on a project. (applause)

Steve: A nice positive story. A date and a place. So you had some of the specifics. Feedback? 
Participant: I would have liked to hear a “What if we all told our story?” That would have helped.
Steve: What if? Yes! Those magic words – “What if?” or “Just imagine…” – can enable more of the listeners to spring to where you want them to spring. Otherwise there’s a risk of them thinking, well, so what? Half a million dollars? So what? Maybe he should have saved it anyway? If a big part of the audience is saying, “So what?”, then you try using the magic words: “What if?” or “Just imagine…” or “Just think…” You are suggesting where you want them to spring, on the wings of imagination. 
Participant: My little voice is saying: how did you get the manager to tell the story in the first place? 
Steve: So here’s a listener saying that there’s not enough detail, not enough connective tissue. I stress the importance of stripping away the detail, but you can go too far. If your listeners are groping for detail, groping for what happened and how the story unfolded, then we might need to put in more detail so that they can follow. 
    And there’s no absolute answer. I often tell a story about highways and it talks about a new highways technology. And when I tell that story to any audience, I simply say a new innovative technology in highways and that’s the end of the matter. And no one at the end of the session ever asks, “What was that new technology?” That is, UNLESS I’m talking to highway engineers. (laughter) Then I know if I tell that story like that, the first question is inevitably, “What was the technology you were talking about?” I reply that it was the inverted pavement technology, but I know that they haven’t listened to any of the rest of the story. They’re sitting there thinking, “What was that damned new technology he is talking about?” So I have come to know for highway engineers, I need to give them that detail, which is completely unnecessary for other audiences. It depends on the interest and knowledge of your target audience. It’s only by trying it out that you find out whether you have the right level of detail. 
Participant: (Larry Forster) A general comment. I was working on a story with a very low level of detail. I tried it out on audiences and each time they asked me for more detail. And a little more. And a little more. And then the last time, it was: “You got too much detail.” (laughter
Steve: It happens. You have to listen to different pieces of advice that you get from these proxy audiences, and in the end adopt a balance. 
Participant storyteller: (Mary-Alice Arthur) 
So imagine, if you will, that you’re a legal conference of a major drug company. You all work in different parts of the organization, or rather the organization is in all different bits around the world. And usually when you get together in conferences like this, you spend all your time arguing. Sound familiar? (laughter) So our team is trying to put the case that we should be doing some collaborative work around setting up contracts so that people can, kind of, be harmonious about it.
     Last September, Drugs-R-Us Inc., which is an organization that is a competitor of ours, 
     but also one that is based around the world. The U.S. has a lot of branches and their 
     subsidiaries around the rest of the world as well. And each of the parts of this organization 
     act as if they were a totally autonomous individual. Often when the U.S. would try to do 
     things about contracts, and send it off to other countries, they would react in an irate
     fashion, for being forced into language that wasn’t applicable to them, or wording or 
     ways of working that they didn’t find applicable, so that there was a lot of tension in 
     this organization. 
         Finally Mike, who worked in the California branch, eventually got annoyed with all of 
     this and as the manager of the legal branch there, he rang up Ian directly in the London
     office.The two of them worked together with their teams on a contract to manage their 
     contracts and they were able to harmonize and work together very quickly. This stunned 
     the rest of  the organization, and so in the light of the results of that one team, they 
     decided to set up a contract harmonization team with direct representatives from around 
     the world. And they are now able to do all of their international contracts within a month.
         What would happen if we were able to do all of our contracts within a month? 

Steve: Feedback?
Participant: Too much detail.
Steve: Too much detail! 
Participant: My little voice was going on, because there was so much negative data. It was hard to hear the positive of it. Perhaps a little less of the negative data?
Steve: Often these environments are negative. Sometimes people tell me that they work in the Doom Channel. (laughter) Nothing positive ever happens to me. No happy endings around here! (laughter) But you can deal with this, you can tell stories about a negative environment, but the trick is to get all of the negative pieces out, at the start. 
    Say, if you are telling a story about the Titanic tragedy, it was bad news. The ship sank. 1500 people drowned. Bad news all around, right? Well, you can get that out, up front: 
I’m telling you a story about the Titanic. It was a tragic accident. The ship sank. 1500 people drowned. It was a catastrophe. BUT within that environment, within that horrible tragedy, there was something rather wonderful that happened. Let me tell you about it…
     So you have got all of the negative stuff up front. Then you can move on a positive sweep, with the positive story about the heroic actions which led on to this bold new future. So you tell this story about this exciting incident that happened with the sinking of the Titanic, and then: what if? What if with all ships that sank, in all accidents, you had this kind of heroic behavior? You are starting to paint this picture of positive things. And because you have been honest about the bad news up front, then people will see it positively even though the whole framework, looked at from a distance, is very negative. 
     What you shouldn’t do is to tell a story about the Titanic like this:

             700 happy passengers reached New York after the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

End of story. (laughter) It’s true as far as it goes. But it leaves out the little detail that the ship sank and 1500 other people drowned. If you tell a story like that, then the backlash on the story and the storyteller is massive. The ironic thing is that many corporate communications, if not most corporate communications, are exactly in the format of that Titanic story! They paint a rosy picture of the situation, but just around the corner, just below the surface, there is some horrible detail, which, once it becomes known, if it isn’t already known, totally undermines the positive impact of the story. 
      So dealing with this negative material is possible, but here’s a listener who got tangled up with some of the negative material in the story. So next time you tell the story, you might want to move some of the negative details closer to the front of the story. 
Participant: I think I had the same reaction. It was told as a story within a story. I didn’t make the connection to the story within. It was only when I thought back on it. 
Steve: Here’s a listener who’s not following the details of the story. Remember that you’re trying to tell a story in something like 60 or 90 seconds. You have to be very careful about how many characters you have on stage at any one time. I lost track of the number of characters you had. I wasn’t sure who the protagonist was. And because you’re in this very confined time space, you have to be careful to introduce your characters clearly, one at a time. If Mike is your protagonist, introduce him up front, so that the audience can lock on to him. By the time he appeared in the story, there was a lot going and multiple actors and so we’re not really sure he’s going to be the protagonist. It’s only later looking back that we can see that he was the protagonist. At the time, we’re struggling to make sense of the multiple actors. In a novel, that doesn’t matter because you’ve got plenty of time to sort things out. But here you’ve only got 60 to 90 seconds, so you have to make things very clear and very simple for the audience. Otherwise you’ll have people like this listener who are losing the plot of the story. 
Participant Storyteller: Did you realize that the introductory material wasn’t part of the story?
Participant: Yes, I got that, but I still had difficulty sorting it out. 
Steve: This is a slightly artificial setting. This audience is a kind of proxy audience for your real audience, so you rightly had to tell us who we are. You gave an introduction, but when you do that, make sure that there is a clear break between the introduction and the performance. It’s like the curtain rises, and now you’re on stage. It’s like they do when making a movie in Hollywood, “Take one”. 

Participant storyteller: Imagine this. You’re a group of storytellers. (laughter)  There’s a stretch, no? You’re a group of professional storytellers and you doubt that you can bring your profession into the business place. You’re some of the skeptics. This is the story.
In October of 1999, a professional storyteller got a phone call. Someone had seen his website. They represented an association of business psychologists. They wanted to know: maybe the storytelling thing applies to us. And he said, “But I don’t know anything about business! I don’t know anything about psychology!” 
And the person said to him, “But I want you to come anyway.”
And so he made a leap of faith, and said, “Yes!” And so he went, thinking all the time, “I don’t know anything about business or psychology.”
But he told his stories. And he used mythology. And he asked them to imagine how it applied to them. And he simply told his stories. At the end of the day, there was so much excitement. And even better than that, there were so many phone calls from all the people who were there. And his business expanded. 
    So imagine if you would let go of the questions, like “I don’t know anything about x.” And you just got yourself ready to say, “Yes!” the next time somebody calls you. (applause)
Steve: Thanks very much for that positive story about storytelling. (Laughter) Feedback? Believable? Yes? For me, I would think: for this audience, it might be believable. But if you think how this might play in a very skeptical audience, my hunch would be that you might run into problems. People might not be able to see the causal link; they might not be able to envisage how it happened. But I might be wrong. It depends on the audience.
Participant: That’s actually what my comment was, because I’m thinking, “Well, of course, business psychologists. Psychologists are already into storytelling in some way or another.” So that’s not typical. I’m thinking you need to be talking about a much more skeptical group. 
Steve: It has to be plausible. It has to be strange but plausible. It has to be a little strange, otherwise people won’t be interested in it. But it also has to be plausible to your target audience. So you try it out, and for this audience, it seems to be working. They’re thinking, “Yes!” But test it out. And make sure that it’s actually plausible to your target audience. 
Participant: I guess what we missed was when you said, “He went and he told his story.” What we’re learning today is more about getting people people to tell their story in addition. For me it becomes, I can’t reach that, because I’m not sure that I’m at that point where I can tell my story. I feel that I could get people to tell me their story. But I’m not sure about telling my story. 
Participant storyteller: This is about a professional storyteller. It’s not a facilitator. This is a professional storyteller.
Steve: So you see what’s happening. Here’s a listener who’s wondering whether it’s plausible. So you must give enough detail that it becomes plausible.
Participant storyteller: Remember that this is a story that is meant for an audience of professional storytellers.
Steve: Right. So in this case, this listener is not a professional storyteller and so you may not worry about her reaction. (laughter) You have to realize that when you tell your story, you’re going to get a tremendous amount of feedback. People will tell you that it’s good. It’s bad. The whole spectrum. You have to be thinking, “What part of the target audience do they represent?” If the listeners are typical of the eventual target audience that you’re going to be talking to, then you take that feedback very seriously. If they are atypical, then you listen, but you might decide to give it less weight. 
Participant: The intended audience is one of professional storytellers. But the link at the end put me off, because the problem is that for these people, the phone wasn’t ringing. So if the phone doesn’t ring, there’s no way that the story applies.
Steve: So here’s someone who’s asking about the causal links in the story. Is it plausible? For her, the problem was: the phone isn’t ringing in the first place. So next time, you can explore telling the story in a way to make these links clearer. But it was a wonderful story, and thanks very much. (applause
And we could obviously go on all night, and all tomorrow, for that matter. But time has expired. And I know some of you have to move on. And others of you will be joining us again tonight with Noa Baum’s storytelling theater. For now, I wanted to ask Paul Costello to bring this workshop to a close. But before that, I would like to say thank you to all of you for making this such a wonderful day. (applause
It’s sometimes said that you should be the change that you want to see made. You should become that change. I think that Steve is the springboard. He teaches the springboard story methodology, but I think he is the story that he wants to tell. I think that he epitomizes springboard. His history in law and economics and in senior management in the World Bank. And then suddenly in the middle stage of life being catapulted into this role where you can see that he is in touch with his passion, his creativity, and his intense energy that he has given us today. I’m not telling you a lie when I say that the fact that we are together this weekend is in no small way due to his energy and his vision and his focus. So thanks very much, Steve. (applause
When we started the day, let me just quickly recap in terms of Seth Kahan who started the day with jumpstart storytelling. Then we moved to Alicia Korten and the native peoples of Panama and their storytelling encapsulating values. Then we moved to Rob Creekmore and we went deeper into stories and story appreciation and about values, about what we treasure. And then after lunch, we had Madelyn getting us all energized about the future and creating the future now and energizing us towards it. And then lastly, Steve, who showed us how to spring the audience into the future and bring us home at the end of the day. (applause
Steve: One other thing: there is actually a ticket we have to give you on the way – a ticket to the storytelling express. It’s just a little symbol of the journey that we are on and where you may take this journey next.

Paul: There is one group I haven’t acknowledged. Could all the storytellers in the room raise your hands. Can I thank you for being here and sharing your wisdom. You have brought so much to our exercise today. (applause

    Steve said earlier that I have read all the books on storytelling. Actually, I haven’t. I’ve skimmed a fair few of them. I’ve read some of them. But my apartment is full of books. I’d like to finish with a poem. I thought I’d send you off with a poem, which is a little bit different from a story. In a sense, I’d like to indulge my passion for books. Many of you probably have apartments full of books. Do you have lots of books at your place? (laughter) You do? Well, here’s a poem that is kind of personal to me, but it’s also a bit of fun. It’s called: 

                    LENDING OUT BOOKS
                        HAL SIROWITZ

     You’re always giving, my therapist said.
     You have to learn how to take.
     Whenever you meet a woman, the first thing you do is lend her your books.
     You think she’ll have to see you again in order to return them. 
     But what happens is, she doesn’t have the time to read them. 
     And she’s afraid if she sees you again, you’ll expect her to talk about them. 
     And will want to lend her even more. 
     So she cancels the date. 
    You end up losing a lot of books. 
    You should borrow hers. (applause) 

    Can I thank you for allowing us as the team to borrow your day, and your time and your energy. We hope that you’ve shared stories and that we’ve shared stories, so that you can borrow from us, and take back. And if there are some people in the room before you leave who have shared a story, with you in your small circles or wherever, it’s a wonderful narrative ethic that the native peoples always honor: a story told is a gift given. Remember to say thank you before you leave. Thank you! It’s been a wonderful experience. (applause

Tel 301 371-7100 :; www.Pelerei.Com
Steve Denning
Tel. 966 9392
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Seth Kahan 
Tel 301 229-2221; Email:
Rob Creekmore
Tel. 703-435-4623

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To buy:
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Steve Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, USA

          Paperback - 192 pages. ISBN: 0750673559 
To read 
of :
The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling
          by Steve Denning (work in progress) 
RECOMMENDED LINKS Copyright © 2000 Stephen Denning-The views expressed on this website are those of Stephen Denning, and not necessarily those of any person or organization.