Sunday, May 31, 2009

Story-Based Communication

Here is a comparison of traditional forms of communication with story-based ones...

More Traditional Forms of Communication

Story-Based Communications

Explicit – information is presented in a direct, precise and clear manner.

Implicit – information is encoded in packets of compelling and memorable nuggets.

Logical – information is organized in an easy to follow linear fashion.

Evocative – information is more emotional in nature and lends itself to less structured types of presentations (including non-linear threads that can be followed and navigated based on people’s needs and interests).

Controlled – information is structured to leave as little as possible to people’s interpretation.

Emergent – information is meant to trigger people’s experiences, personal associations, and linkages.

Sense Giving – information is used to minimize uncertainty by offering tangible and discernable chunks of meaning.

Sense Making – information requires people to generate more of their own meaning and in some instances may leave people feeling uncertain as to the nature of the information until they do make sense of it for themselves.

Bear in mind both buckets are critical to the success of effective organizational communications. It’s just we tend to think of stories as another tool in the first bucket; we need to understand that stories operate best when they act as stimuli as opposed to information containers.

Stories achieve their greatest punch when they are used to create interlocking webs of meaning. A story used as a solitary chunk of communication is far less effective than when we find innovative ways to string associations of stories together. If one story paints a powerful picture what will several well integrated stories do, especially if we invite people to co-create them with us? Although this may seem counter intuitive, stories used to stimulate the storytelling of others yield the best results.

Think of story-based communication strategies as cloud chambers in your organization…

Cloud Chamber - apparatus that detects high-energy particles passing through a supersaturated vapor; each particle ionizes molecules along its path and small droplets condense on them to produce a visible track (definition courtesy of

Stories act as organizational cloud chambers. They create a space of dialogue and sense making. This “story space” is where people interact with each other’s stories in different ways. Some interactions might occur as people reflect and react to organizational collaterals peppered with stories, some interactions might happen when we create formal and informal opportunities for people to respond to the stories we use to incite dialogue, and still other interactions, once we have put the initial stories out there, will happen without us doing anything whatsoever to orchestrate them. As stories elicit more stories by bouncing off of each other, organizational trajectories of meaning and understanding emerge. People’s actions provide a visible albeit subtle and ghostly trace of the impact of story-based communications.

Stories are not another lever in a machine. Machines or systems take known controlled inputs that produce reliable and consistent outputs. Stories are more chaotic. Once you stir up or perturbate the social fabric of individual nodes of sense making (aka the people in an organization) unexpected behaviors emerge. What is lost in control is gained in the propagating strength of the communication signal and the rolling waves of self-directed behaviors it has the potential to create. Communications function less like instructions and more like picture frames waiting to be filled with collages of vibrant photographs.

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