The Storytelling Animal

storytelling-animalIn The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall tells us how stories make us human. The book looks at gender differences in weaving our own stories, the cultural significance of stories, and some of the science and pseudo-science on story, narration and memory. It boils down to a simple formula, says Gottschall.

Story = Character + Predicament
+ Attempted Extrication

This made me consider how this could be important for institutional memory. Would this be a good formula to try to capture past events from those who have experienced them? It could be, but it might be highly dependent on how much time has passed and how important accuracy is, as we are not very good at remembering, especially critical, or “flashbulb”, events. “Memory isn’t an outright fiction; it is merely a fictionalization“, says Gottschall.

The signature flashbulb event of our age is 9/11, which led to a bonanza of false-memory research. The research shows two things: that people are extremely sure of their 9/11 memories and that upward of 70% of us misremember key aspects of the attacks … In one study, 73 percent of research subjects misremembered watching, horrified, as the first plane plowed into the North Tower on the morning of September 11.

The research shows that our memories get worse over time, but our stories, as we remember them, become much clearer. We have a propensity for self-delusion, something every jury member should always keep in mind. But fiction (story) is much more powerful than non-fiction. Gottschall discusses the power of Wagner’s mythology on Hitler, as well as how the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, influenced the 19th century anti-slavery movement.

When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.

Consider the above statement and think about training. Would it not be more effective if content was developed as stories? How about knowledge management? I think stories would be most effective for new hire training. Perhaps we should focus less on instructional design or knowledge repositories. Instead, organizations could engage good story tellers. We hear a lot about the importance of curation in the digital workplace today. The best curators are also story tellers.

I enjoyed this book and learned a fair bit from it, but it is not a book that deals much with how stories can be used for KM or other organizational purposes.

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