By J. Dean Spence
Walter Fisher suggests that humans experience and articulate their existence through narration. “Homo narrans” is Fisher’s defining term for us as a species. Some even argue that the default mode of human thought may very well be narrative cognition.
While I was a graduate student, it occurred to me that humans do not only tell their own stories they tell stories about other things that cannot or do not, for whatever reason, tell their own stories. In short, humans are also storytelling surrogates. In this vein, I initially limited my thoughts to advertising creatives who create the story of a product and/or service. But perhaps there is more to storytelling surrogacy. It may be all around us. In our personal lives, we tell our friends the story of our pets, our favourite gadgets and more. There are also professional storytelling surrogates such as art critics, environmentalists, and archeologists.
For me, storytelling in a business context is a documentation—formal and informal—of an organization’s events (meaningful and insignificant) and existence. It is perhaps clear what I mean by “events”, but what of “existence”? I’m not a philosopher, so there is probably a better and more precise way to say this, but by existence I am referring to an organization’s intangibles (business model, reputation, image, mission, values etc.) and tangibles (a building’s architecture and interior design, the staff’s attire etc.). As I have said elsewhere, storytelling is not just about words on a page and computer screen. But although the words intangible and tangible are mirror images of each other with opposite meanings, they have something in common. In this context neither tells a story directly. They “radiate” a story, requiring a sentient being to communicate it.
This is storytelling surrogacy.
The open-plan office space of Company X may suggest cross-functional collaboration and teamwork, but it is a person who interprets this “radiating” story that articulates it.
Events too likely require surrogate storytelling. A crisis cannot tell its own story. When an organization is embroiled in a crisis, it is the media, the public, and the organization’s crisis managers that tell the story so that everyone affected can make sense of the situation.
Ultimately, we may more precisely say that storytelling in a business context is a documentation of an organization’s essence. A business exists first as an idea in its founder or founders’ head, and then through the actions of its people, its events and by radiating itself, the story of its essence unfolds.