Story Telling has two faces

November 26, 2007

As many people know I tend to avoid the use of Story Telling in connection with my work. Firstly because its not very accurate; most of that work is gathering, permitting self-interpretation, sensing patterns in narrative material. OK a small amount is telling stories, and even that uses an emergent process allowing the story to emerge through multiple interactions. Secondly, I find a lot of what goes under the broad title of Story Telling (especially since the subject has become popular), trite, over evangelical, excessive in its claims and manipulative in all the wrong senses of that word.

Of course in English Story Telling has two meanings, one a literal description. The other is to deceive, to mislead people to some end. Now a lot of people have sent me this story about the recent Australian election. While all right minded people will celebrate the fall of Howard (OK, this should be no revelation to anyone who knows me and this blog represents my opinions not those of Cognitive Edge) I don’t think we can ascribe that success to Story Telling per se. If we do then we should also attribute his numerous re-elections to a similar process. The journalist has also failed to do basic research. The Australian Labour Party used techniques to rename things derived from US electoral practice rather than formal narrative techniques. This involves establishing key phrases in the electorate mindset, and association of those key words positively or negatively with values. There also took a lot from the Blair years about staying on message, appearing more conservative than the Conservatives etc. etc. While I can admit the necessity of such techniques after a long period in opposition I am still disturbed by them.

Now I am old fashioned enough to hark back to the days where politicians had to hold an audience for an hour in a town hall, or square and deal with hecklers. That meant they not only had to know their subject, but they also had to believe what they were saying. Direct human contact is a great detector of someone who just wants to tell a story. The sound bite culture is to my mind the antithesis of democratic process. The last thing I would want is to endorse or celebrate the abduction of narrative techniques into what can only be described as propaganda.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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