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GP19Aug:  Stories R Us

Storyville.  Only recently have we learned about the other Storyville, well away from New Orleans.  It is in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where people gather yearly to tell their yarns before large audiences.  Tennessee, it seems, not only has Nashville where country and western singers wax eloquent on getting through love and all the other joys and agonies of life.  In  Jonesborough, yarnmeisters lift up our spirits with tales of heroism and anecdotes that reveal some moral truths about life. 

Jonesborough, if we have it straight, has a historic right to be at the center of storytelling.  It is at the heart of Washington County which bounced back and forth in earlier times between North Carolina and Tennessee, much the unwanted stepchild.  In fact, it tried to break off as the new state of Franklin in 1784, but that rebellion was put down by Tennessee which, in the end, wanted to own this mythic state of mind.  You can read all about this Storyville on one of its websites:  www.jonesboroughonline.com and  about our storytelling subculture on the host of interrelated sites about storytelling, such as www.storynet.org, www.storytellersguild.org, www.storytellingfestival.net, and others.   

Upbringing.  Stories do have a lot to do with bringing up our children right.  There is ample evidence that children turn out more literate if their parents will read to them at bedtime, year after year.  And there’s a chap in Dallas who was in the duck whistle business who believed that he had brought up his children right if they had a bunch of good memories (stories to tell).  Education, training, learning—all that stuff—seems to work better when we use stories, because tales capture the heart as well as the mind, while pedagogues, sadly, often capture very little with their abstractions. 

Case Method.  Once upon a time, the Harvard Business School taught almost exclusively by the case method wherein students poured over, debated, and tried to understand a tale about some aspect of a company’s history. In other words, Harvard was in the story business.  This worked pretty well, even though the tales were not richly told or written.  In fact, Harvard should get back to cases and insist that professors and students alike learn to create them—with lots of metaphors and levels of understanding—and to understand them. 

There are a few companies today that esteem their myths.  And we know of at least one company that is putting together a company training program simply based on richly told stories out of the company’s history book.  Its best story is about how badly early managers ran the company but that its product is so good that they simply could not destroy the company no matter how hard they tried. In this company, it is felt that story-training does more than help employees achieve analytical minds:  it motivates them and gives them a common language and helps them tell their company’s story to the world.  We have discovered, too, that the best way to help employees understand something is to get them to teach it.  With stories, they are far better teachers. 

Tell Me a Story.  This is the title of Don Hewitt’s book, the longtime producer of Sixty Minutes.  “I may not know a lot,” says Hewitt, “but I think I know how to tell a story.”  Probably he doesn’t  tell a good story, but he does know how to write good headlines like “Tell Me A Story.”  TV is not a good story medium, and most of the news features done on his show have an axe to grind.    Somehow they do not lead to feelings of exaltation.  In the days of radio (stories are a hearing thing), we heard tales that led us to new worlds and often put us in mind of a better thing.   

Lemons into Lemonade.  One of our partners said the task in business is to turn “lemons into lemonade.”  That sure makes for both useful and entertaining stories in business.  We remember the tale of the chap whose truck broke down on Central Avenue just outside of Hartsdale, New York.  With nothing better to do, he set up shop and started selling soft ice cream then and there.  People aplenty stopped:  this scientific location analysis drove him to come back to this spot endlessly to sell ice cream.  Eventually he put up a store in that very place.  Thus was born the Carvel soft ice cream empire, finally a success because an unsuccessful itinerant soft ice cream vendor accidentally opened up his stand in a magic location where his product flew off the shelf.   

We would conclude that it is good business to recount stories about successful accidents and that accidental stories are the tissue that connects business enterprises together in ways that last through the generations.  Good stories are believable:  this power seems to elude TV news magazines, management textbooks, sermonizing self-help books, and a host of other vehicles where telling a good story superbly is not the supreme objective.  We can always use a story or two.

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