Annette Simmons Q&A
It’s hard to put into words just how honored and thrilled I am to bring you my 20th Q&A — with Annette Simmons, one of the legends of applied storytelling, and certainly a huge influence on me. I read her The Story Factor early in my dissertation research and also was entertained and informed by her presentation during the 2005 Smithsonian storytelling weekend; indeed, she is one of the best presenters I’ve ever heard. Despite her busy schedule and many commitments, Annette has been consistently kind and responsive to the many questions and requests I’ve sent her over the years.
A funny thing happened on the way to publishing Annette’s Q&A. She actually submitted it a long time ago — during the summer of 2008 — but somehow I never got it. You’ll therefore see that one of her responses deals with the 2008 presidential election — before the outcome was determined. While I regret not being able to publish that response before the election, it’s fun to see it with the election outcome in mind.
Bio of Annette Simmons can be found here.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: I think that our feelings of alienation from core human experiences arise from too much “virtual” reality and not enough real reality: TV, radio, texting, cellphones, restaurants, gyms…all are substitutes for personal experiences like face to face interaction, growing and cooking food, hiking, experiencing labor that results in value (chopping wood), personal intimacy (stuck without TV forced to talk to family)…all of these conveniences have created a shallow experience of being human. People crave depth. In business this shallow attachment (It isn’t personal) was drilled into us so we could make decisions that were inhumane (downsizing at Christmas) without having to FEEL inhumane. So….we got what we wanted - limited intimacy increased convenience with life so that we don’t have to feel beholden, overwhelmed, or overly responsible. Unfortunately when we limit negative emotions we also limit positive feelings of trust, belonging, emotional safety. The back-end costs of reducing emotional inconvenience and increasing speed now leaves us craving depth, even a little hard work, or risked vulnerability so we can feel human again.
Story reintroduces intimacy and emotions to communications between people. It is a co-created acknowledgment that we (I, thou) are humans who feel, taste, touch, see, and hear in ways that make facts less important than who and what we love. Story gives us permission to take life personally again. Story reintroduces permission to care about what happens to others. Story allows our imperfections to be set in a context that shows we are still good people.
The business interest in storytelling is riding this “crave wave” as well as a parallel realization that designing messages that create emotions like desire, craving, and/or trust towards a product requires that the message tells a story. Nothing is important or unimportant to someone except for the story they tell themselves about it. You want your product to be important to a consumer? Inspire them to tell themselves a story about it that makes it personally relevant.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: I was in grad school studying adult education in a master’s program at NCSU. My stepmom thought it would be a good way to get us kids (adults, but barely) together from different parts of the country to meet at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN. I had never heard of it before. I fell in love with the stories, the people, the emotions, and the fresh-made cider they served hot from a long-gone general store.
Over the next few years I was simply a fan. It never occurred to me I could do “that.” But Cheryl, a friend of mine saw a change in the way I did my work (leadership training). At one festival, I stopped Ed Stivender on the street just to tell him how much I love him and his stories. Cheryl was with me. He asked, “Are you a storyteller?” I said, “Oh no.” and Cheryl piped in, “Yes you ARE!”
Like any art form, there are many who rush to call themselves a painter, singer, musician, and even a “storyteller.” But some of us find the step a daunting bridge to cross. For me, to call myself a storyteller is sort of like being sworn in to a set of unwritten laws. I will tell the truth. I will tell stories that no one else might tell. I will bear witness to remind people of what is most important. Those storytelling principles are what I love most about storytelling. It is an honorable tradition as well as a wonderful way to stay connected to people and to stay connected to what is most important to us all — family.
Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: Doug Lipman remains the single most important influence on me. I attended his workshops and I’ve hired him as a personal coach. I’ve chosen to stay as close to the “source” as possible when I study, work on my storytelling and consulting. I have hired Elizabeth Ellis and Nancy Donoval as personal coaches. I have attended workshops with Judith Black and Jay O’Callahan. All of these people are star performance storytellers I first saw at the National Storytelling Festival. I try to limit my use of “derivative” sources. We have such amazing talent available for such a low cost. Conferences can cost thousands and the festival only costs $150 for a full weekend. It is a great resource for learning and based in ancient “truths” craved by those adrift in numbers, money, and market reports.
Q: In your most recent book, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, you talk about how organizations need both story and metrics, analysis, and objective thinking. Those of us in the storytelling world have, of course, long accepted that organizations need the emotional dimension of story. We accept that facts, figures, bullet points, and death-by-PowerPoint aren’t always the best way to communicate. But is the mainstream business/organizational world getting these messages? Do you see evidence that more organizations are embracing your message — or are the organizations you consult with still surprised — even shocked — by what you bring to them?
A: If I am giving a keynote I love to say “I think we need more metrics, don’t you?” The room erupts in laughter. Reports steal so much time that EVERYONE thinks we need fewer, not more metrics. Even the top guys - they will say, “We have to edit this pile of measurements down to the vital few.” The problem is that no one can decide which metrics to stop, and no one can get approval for something that doesn’t promise a measurable return on investment. So new projects mean new measurements…or at least continuation of the old ones. Stop a report, and somebody screams bloody murder. So… they are not shocked; they are hungry to cut out metrics. But they can’t seem to decide what to unload from their 50-lb backpack of tools, so they trudge on.
Without a boss who is willing to risk mistakes…everyone keeps measuring everything. To spend significant time on stories, is definitely a lead by example issue. When the CEO or Chief of Staff start using stories and reward acts that are not measurable, but in the spirit of the group’s mission - then everyone else follows suit.
Even in a mechanized organization a storytelling manager can thrive as long as he/she has the important numbers. Like Lincoln responding to complaints of Gen. Grant’s drinking problem - whatever he/she is drinking, send everyone a case of it - a high-performing storyteller gets to keep doing whatever he/she is doing. Nothing succeeds like success.
Anytime someone says, “they won’t let me tell a story — all they want are the facts,” I assume that is their anxiety talking. Few, if any stories in a business setting should last more than 3 minutes. People will happily sit still for a three-minute story and NO ONE will complain that they wished you had added another PowerPoint slide rather than told your story.
Editor’s note: You’ll note that Annette’s response was written before the election. She actually submitted it a long time ago — during the summer of 2008 — but somehow I never got it. While I regret not being able to publish that response before the election, it’s fun to see it with the election outcome in mind. For example, it’s interesting to look at her response and think about McCain’s response to economic meltdown. Pundits have said that McCain’s telling the story that “the fundamentals of the economy are sound” is what cost him the election. It’s also interesting to reflect on Obama’s 30-minute infomercial as his response to “Who I am, and WHY I am here.”
Q: In your most recent book, you write about political stories. Indeed, the title of your book is Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. What kind of story will win the upcoming presidential election, and which candidate is most likely to tell that story well?
A: First I want to say that context is everything. If we have another attack, if there is a run on the bank… or if something BIG happens, then Obama and McCain will tell their story by how they respond to these issues. It will eclipse their “scripted” stories. We will be watching their stories live as they happen. If they have approached storytelling from deep authenticity, living as well as telling “stories” that authentically convey, “Who I am, and WHY I am here” then their actions and words will be congruent and their stories will be told in real life as it unfolds (limited by media edits that can misconstrue). For me, deciding who you are and why you are here comes first, and stays true no matter what the circumstances. I understand they may vet some stories according to polls, but polls should not be a part of the first decisions. If either one of them start using stories to be something they are not in order to respond/manipulate polls they risk losing their core (both in terms of personal strength and constituency).
Both men wrote books that told their stories well. McCain’s was a while back, but they both put a stake into the ground, “this is who I am.” Obama is a better communicator, so he has an “unfair” advantage in telling his story. McCain has done the best thing by embracing his “speak first, think later” style as part of his story by naming his bus/airplane the “Straight Talk Express.” He should stick with that story - he isn’t a master of rhetoric and never will be. He can own the “straight talker” image. He should maximize it rather than minimize it. All weaknesses can be strengths and vice versa.
As pressure builds to turn “why I am here” into “how we will do this” both are at great risk. The “how” of any great goal is always divisive. Any realistic plan encounters inescapable truths that safety costs money/time, quality costs time/money. No matter what plan, no matter which goal -opposition will rip the guts out of it by emphasizing the down side. Selling your “how” is the hardest story to tell. It needs to include a “I know what you are thinking” story to pre-empt the attacks. I think they will both avoid concrete plans for that reason. It is easier to keep the plans fuzzy - but they both lose points when they do.
Obama is the better storyteller and has a better story to tell. Creative types are itching to tell it for him, spread the story. For instance, having Hussein as his middle name and NOT being Muslim is one story young people are “retelling” by posting it as THEIR middle name (at least on Facebook..i.e., Annette Hussein Simmons). His tour of the Middle East is plastering presidential-looking photos on TV and in newspapers - images tell a powerful story. He is savvy about photo ops.
If there is an attack, or manufactured fear of an imminent attack then McCain may have an advantage if he chooses to tell a story of fear. Biologically, in a short-term experience, stories of fear usually trump stories of hope when competing for human attention. If they both try to tell stories of hope, Obama has a better story to tell and is a better storyteller. If McCain can stimulate enough fear his military story might seem safer to frightened people. However the population seems to be experiencing fear fatigue so it is possible fear won’t trump hope this time.