I say a whole-hearted "yes."
For 20 years, I’ve been involved in the community that has promoted the use of storytelling in business. Most of my colleagues have written books about the subject. In many of them are processes and ideas that I have developed and offered to them to include. This year, I began asking myself why I had not written my own book on the use of story in business. This is not a book, but it may be the beginning of one.
We have many frameworks offered to management for helping them deal with issues. But I have found that more than most, the structure of story offers a universal framework for looking at what puzzles us each day. My hope is to explore common business situations and use the structure of story to address them.
First let’s talk about structure in general. Think of a table. You know it’s a table because it has a surface that is supported by one or more uprights. We all agree that it is a table – not by what it looks like, what it is made of, what color it is, or even what function it performs. You know a table when you see it because of its structure.
I wish that story had such a simply defined structure. Aristotle said that a story has three parts – a beginning, middle, and end. This is simple and true, but it is not sufficient for creating and working with a story, because lots of things have a beginning, middle, and end including a meal, a plane ride, or even a piece of string. They are not stories in and of themselves — although I bet you could tell a story about every one of them.
I use five elements to define the structure of a story: the setting, the characters, the point of tension, the subsequent actions, and the resolution. (Other authors use different names, but these will suffice for our purposes.)
Here's an example of a story that may feel familiar:
Setting and Main Characters: Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a king and queen who had a lovely daughter. (Can you see her loveliness?)
Point of Tension: At the daughter’s christening, the wicked witch cast a spell on her that when she pricked her finger on a spinning wheel, she would die. (Are you beginning to be concerned for this lovely person?)
Actions: The daughter’s godmother also cast a spell that altered the original spell to allow for another possibility. As a result, the daughter and all in the castle would just fall into a long sleep. After many years, a prince came upon the castle, fought his way through the thorns that surrounded it, found the lovely daughter sleeping, and kissed her. At his kiss, she and all in the castle awoke.
Resolution: They lived happily ever after.
Notice how the structure does not limit the story. It merely gives it form.
Now, let’s see how this structure can by used to tackle a business challenge. When I meet a new business situation, the first thing that I do is begin an exploration. I try to understand and name the challenge, problem, or goal. After all, that’s what’s calling for a solution and resolution. But I don't like to assume I have it right until I have explored the setting in which this challenge is occurring. What is involved? Who is involved? Why are they involved? What time frame is operative – immediate or long term? Notice how I am exploring the setting and the characters.
A funny thing happens then. Once I understand these, I go back to the challenge and see if my understanding of the challenge is adequate. Is it still clear and accurate? Of course, this is the fun part. This is where the problem usually takes on new meaning, new detail, more nuance. At this moment, the story is right at the point where you are curious about what might happen, what can happen, and even if any action can affect or achieve a resolution. You might feel anxious. You might feel excited. You might feel overwhelmed and frightened. But if you have done your job right of exploring the setting, the characters, and the point of tension, you feel something. In the story, emotions keep you engaged until you hear the end and how things worked out. In the work situation, it is that that feeling — that emotion — that will engage and drive you to consider the actions needed to resolve these feelings and to accomplish the actions.
Now, you are ready to define and then accomplish the actions needed to resolve the challenge. In fact, it is all you can do to not take action because those feelings are real. Notice that the actions may be the solution, but their purpose is to lead to the resolution. When you hear a story, the same thing happens, and so you listen to the rest of the story anxious to hear how it all turns out.
Structure is sometimes seen as constraining. Don’t be fooled. Humankind has been using the same story structure for generations, and the stories keep coming. The number of stories that can be told within the structure appear to be unlimited. Structure offers safety while exploring for new, resilient options. But that’s another story maybe for next time.