Gregg Morris Q&A
Gregg Morris, of whom I learned probably in the last six months or so, has a blog, What’s Your Story?, that is — gasp — a bit of a “competitor” to A Storied Career. We both focus on applied storytelling and both “curate” content from the applied-storytelling world. Rather than feeling threatened, I am especially grateful to Gregg for picking up the curation slack during the time when I am still dealing with our move to Washington state and finishing building our house here. The first question in this Q&A, in fact, addresses his curating activities.
Bio: Gregg Morris has lived and experienced quite a few stories in his life. After graduating from college with degrees in English, religion, and political science, he spent 12 years as a tennis professional, and when skin cancer forced him to reinvent himself, he proceeded to embark on a career in software and technology. He has worked in software retail and started a software technology consulting company that worked with Lotus, Coca Cola, ABB, Head Sports, and Head Sportswear. He worked as director of sales and marketing at two software companies and spent 15 years at the top of the C-Suite running a software company. He left that 18 months ago and now works as a consultant focusing on narrative and storytelling. He has worked with businesses, non-profits, and individuals on helping them to understand and use narrative and storytelling. He is also at work on the Great American Novel, along with several hundred other writers who have the same idea.
Q&A with Gregg Morris:
Q: What storytelling trends and discoveries have you come across while curating stories for your site and preparing your storytelling-week-in-review feature? What surprises you?
A: Those weekly stories and reviews have turned into daily ones. That was one of the surprises! The sheer volume of interest and talk that surrounds narrative and storytelling is incredible. Applied storytelling in the corporate and non-profit worlds seems to be the biggest trend that I have seen. I don’t suppose that’s surprising given the work of you, Doug Lipman, Steve Denning, Rolf Jensen, Thaler Pekar, Sean Buvala, Jim Loehr, Michael Margolis, Mike Bonifer, and a lot of other very fine people.
The strength and interest in oral storytelling was a real surprise. Coming across The Moth and Story Slams, folks like Bill Ratner and Eric Wolf, storytelling festivals of all shapes and sizes, led by the Pigeon Forge/Smokey Mountains Festival, and the growing interest in personal memoir has all been very enjoyable to read and write about. Also, the amount of work being done with story and storytelling in education was surprising and is very encouraging. The supporting technology that it growing up around that is fascinating to follow as well.
Transmedia and gaming are two areas where a lot of very creative and pioneering storytelling are taking place. An area that I am really interested in is storytelling in the mobile space. I think that location-based services, coupled with some creative software technolgies, have the potential to lead to an explosion of interest in stories and storytelling.
Lastly, I was surprised at the number of different definitions of narrative and story that I have come across. It’s a dizzying array but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. It seems to point to a vibrant and growing storytelling world which can only enrich and enliven us all.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: My earliest memories are story-related, so I guess I’ve been involved in it since I was a young boy. My parents got married quite young, and we lived with my maternal grandmother when I was growing up. In effect, since both of my folks were working to provide for us, she wound up raising me. She was a terrific storyteller. I think that in another set of circumstances she would have been a writer of some kind. Anyway, she’s the one who instilled in me a lifelong love and interest in story, storytelling, and narrative.
While I remember “listening to” and “telling” stories from a young age, my earliest memory of written experience with story came when I was in the second grade. We had to write a story about why we wanted to be a pilot. As luck would have it, my story won the competition and one of the perks was that I got to read it on national radio. If I hadn’t already been hooked on stories and storytelling beforehand, that experience probably did it for sure.
In college, I majored in English and minored in religion and political science so I got to do a lot of story and narrative work there as well. A religion professor, Dr. Ed St. Claire, introduced us to the early work in narrative done by Stephen Crites, who wrote the Narrative Quality of Experience. Working on our “personal stories” in that class gave me a perspective on story, narrative, and emotional connections that I hadn’t been exposed to before.
I wound up working in sports, education, business, and technology. During that time I found that I was constantly using what I had learned about story and narrative techniques in daily business interactions. I left the C-suite just over a year ago, and my plan was to write (tell stories) and do some business consulting in sales, marketing, pr, and social media. What I found when I started doing the consulting part was that what people and businesses really wanted was help with their narrative and their story.
They needed help in those other areas as well, but, with the changes in customer attitudes, interaction and sentiment, it seemed to me that growth in those critical business areas was only going to be achieved with narrative and stories that resonated emotionally with customers. The real ‘niche’ in marketing that would lead to more sales was going to be found by tapping into that part of us that is “story.”
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: This question fascinates me, and I could talk your ear off about it for quite some time. I think that the movement toward storytelling has been gaining momentum since the mid 1990s. Digital technologies were beginning to bear on a global disruption that we are still in the middle of. There was a lot of “high tech, high touch” talk at the start of that time period and what is more high touch than the emotional connection of a great story? (As an aside here, I haven’t researched this, and have no data to support it, but based on the last few, it would seem that the end of one century and the beginning of the next have a habit of shaking things up quite a bit.)
The technology drive that was led by the integrated circuit and then ethernet and then the Internet and World Wide Web have totally disrupted a publishing world put in place by Gutenberg in the mid 1600s. It has given all of us the chance to be publishers if we wish (social media), and it has wrecked havoc with the economies of distribution of content (stories).
Take a moment to go back and look at the influence of Gutenberg on society and on storytelling. Up until the invention of the mechanical press, story was “the” delivery mechanism. We wrote, and we drew, of course, but those were very time-consuming tasks, and we didn’t rely on those for “reach.” We told stories to teach, to deliver messages, to entertain and as anthropologists have told us, to make sense of our world. Gutenberg’s invention turned all of that upside down.
Printing and then audio and then video became the delivery mechanisms of our world. And it was damned expensive to produce and deliver stories. As a result of that, large corporations, who could afford the delivery technologies, grew to be our trusted media and content (stories) sources. All the while, technology continued its march forward, and while it’s interesting to note that a lot of people lay the blame for our feelings of alienation and connection at the feet of that technology, and thus contributing to the rise of interest in story, that very same technology is what has enabled us to connect on a global scale, has upset the distribution applecart, has enabled us each to become publishers and has pretty much shattered our trust in institutions and redirected it towards processes and people.
In that, I believe, lies the explosive growth of storytelling. As individuals we need to tell stories to connect to our emotional worlds and to each other. We need to tell stories to make sense of this ever challenging, ever changing world. As businesses, we need stories to be able to connect to our customers and to give our customers the chance to connect with us. The old distribution mechanisms of packaging messages and propositions have been replaced by conversations and social media. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to tell a story or start a conversation in a 30 second slot. As we move beyond that, story has room to spread its wings and fly.
Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: I had been reading Annette Simmons’ books during the last year of my time in the C-suite, and as I started to investigate and research the world of storytelling I found the pioneering work of folks like you, Doug Lipman, Steve Denning, Rolf Jensen, Thaler Pekar, Sean Buvala, Jim Loehr, Michael Margolis, Mike Bonifer, and so many other wonderful people in the field of storytelling and narrative. There was, I found, a vibrant “solar system” of story, as Michael Margolis likes to call it. I have always loved the workings of narrative and story and the emotional connections they enable. That solar system (community) has been an awesome surprise.
I hope you’ll let me toot your horn a bit because once I started to explore your site I was just blown away by the breadth of the storytelling culture and world. I know you probably chuckle at my references to you as my hero but your work and your site really helped me to see the potential of being able to work with narrative and story outside of the traditional marketing and PR landscape. Now, when someone asks me where they can go to learn more about story and storytelling I inevitably point them to your site as the place to start.
[Editor’s note: Thanks, Gregg; I’m honored and flattered.]
Other books that have influenced my thinking on story and narrative are Rolf Jensen’s The Dream Society, Doug Lipman’s Improving Your Storytelling and Storytelling Coach, Steve Denning’s The Leader’s Guide To Storytelling, Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick and Switch, Francis Flaherty’s The Elements of Story, Jim Loehr’s The Power of Story, and Michael Margolis’ Believe Me. From a storytelling technique standpoint, I’m not sure there’s a better book than Robert McKee’s Story. I am currently reading Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and it’s a wonderful book about narrative and story. A must read for anyone who has an interest in those things.
Q: If you could identify a person or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?
A: I can’t pass this question up. I suppose at the moment BP would be first on just about everyone’s list but, hands down, I think it’s the Roman Catholic Church. Maybe it’s because I was raised a Catholic, was an altar boy, went to parochial schools, considered the seminary once upon a time (eeks!), my parents were both very devout Catholics, and my dad was a man of unshakable faith. Somehow or another I managed to avoid all of the abuse stuff as I was growing up. I think that it was the generation behind me, and those behind them, that really bore the brunt of all of that.
Regardless, they need to desperately tell a big, big story. It seems somewhat ironic, in this age of social media and storytelling, that an institution that could survive Gutenberg and an empowered Martin Luther and those who followed after him, one that was so rich in mystery and storytelling, is now faced with the storytelling and narrative challenges that they are.
I have no idea how that will all play out, but of one thing I am certain. The next pope will have an opportunity to reinvent the church, with the help of story I would think, like very few before him have. The College of Cardinals will need to elect a truly gifted storyteller. For my money, they need to pay close attention to what’s happening to institutional trust and process all around them for there are few, if any, institutions bigger than they are.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: Work on your listening skills. Grow bigger ears. In my experience, the better we listen the better our storytelling becomes. We seem to have entered an age of conversational storytelling. An age where we are being encouraged to live, share and tell our own personal stories as well as our organizational stories. In telling those stories we need to give others the opportunity to connect their stories with our own, on as many levels as possible. And, from a business standpoint, we need to be able to equip our customers with the tools and space necessary to tell their stories as well as our own. The concept of brand democracy via storytelling is absolutely fascinating to me. Being able to do all of this will be an enormous asset to have at one’s side moving forward.
Q: You write that your site, What’s Your Story?, is “about stories and storytelling and how to use and tell those as you go about reinventing yourself and your business in light of the revolutionary changes going on in our society.” Without revealing all your trade secrets, can you talk a bit about how people can use storytelling to reinvent themselves?
A: No trade secrets here. We reinvent ourselves, our businesses or our organizations, because the stories we have been living and telling are no longer viable or working. It could be that we force ourselves into that reinvention. It could be that it’s forced upon us. As individuals, we might be unhappy with our marriage, our jobs, our spiritual life, any number of things, and decide to do something to fix that. As businesses or organizations, we could be unhappy with sales, product performance, employee performance, donor performance, again, any number of things that we decide to do something about. When looked at through the lens of story and storytelling, these situations provide us with the opportunity to overcome obstacles and tell a story about how we did that and the “new” or “different” us that emerges. Since I come at storytelling from both a literature and business background, I tend to see these as inciting incidents. And, inciting incidents always drive the best stories.
The sea change that has been going on for quite a few years now has forced a number of people to either reinvent themselves by telling and living a new and different story or to languish as the one they were living withers. Stories seem to flourish when infused with energy and die when deprived of it. Embracing the reinvention and renewal process with a new story taps into that energy.
I think that the difference between those who manage the reinvention and those who wither is directly related to storytelling. If we can see and follow the threads of narrative and story woven through our lives when we are faced with a life-altering event, then we can use storytelling to help us make sense of what’s happened and to get us through that. The more significant the event or conflicted situation we experience, the greater the opportunity to tap into and then tell a “hero” story. And hero stories seem to resonate with all of us.