If Only We Had Listened: An Assessment and Broad Overview of the Status And Scope of Narrative Practice

Graham Williams and Dorian Haarhoff of The Halo and the Noose are offering an article, “If Only We Had Listened: An Assessment and Broad Overview of the Status And Scope of Narrative Practice,” and submit this note for readers:
“We share Theodore Levitt’s belief that “…a colourful and lightly documented affirmation works better than the tortuously reasoned explanation”. But this is a long article. The subject is complex, important, strategic – and deserves a fuller treatment. The article addresses those who use narrative in their organisations, and those who consult to and advise those organisations on their use of narrative.” To get a copy of the full article, email the authors.

Main-heads of the article are:
Story is the in thing in business. The business-case for the contribution of narrative is well established, and the use of narrative in organisations is growing fast.
Story Practitioners tend to address the top levels and relatively neglect the middle and lower levels – even though a new workplace paradigm has emerged where leaders and their followers at the levels below could both benefit from an equally-proportioned thinking, caring, doing approach. Practitioners also spend more time and effort on the construction and telling of stories, then the capturing of stories, then the art of story listening. It may be that an effective process is the reverse of these areas, and a shift in the proportion of effort devoted to these areas.
Organisations are not always clear about their narrative intentions and there are traps that need to be avoided. A number don’t use the contribution of narrative along their entire business chain, and confine themselves to applications in marketing, selling, training and scenario planning. A look at the story ice-berg reveals lots of untapped potential. Use is mainly about telling, then capturing, then listening. Too few embed narrative in their culture and measure the impact of narrative.
What questions should practitioners and organisations be asking to get the most out of what story has to offer?


“She listened for a long time and then she told me a story………..” Ben Shrank

Story is the in thing in business

In the business world there has been an explosive uptake of the use of narrative applications by organisations – corporate and non-profit. There has also been a proliferation of narrative practitioners (management consultants, service providers who offer programmes to up-skill sales people in forging emotional connections with customers, leadership coaches, specialists who conduct anecdote circles for research and sense-making purposes, those who assist organisations to tell their brand story, and others).

The case for using narrative has become well established and accepted. Key arguments are:

  • Neurological: Story and metaphor have immense psychological & physiological power. The human brain processes imagined experiences in the same way it processes real experiences
  • Historical/Social: A legacy and atmosphere of stories. Some (like Kendall Haven, Nigel Nicholson, A.C. Grayling) believe that we humans are ‘hardwired’ for story, possess a ‘fiction impulse’, empathise with and find meaning in story. Corporations can effectively plug into this predisposition
  • Cognitive: Our cognitive functioning, the way we learn, remember and grow, is via both abstract and narrative thinking. We employ anecdote, story, metaphor naturally
  • Successes: More and more success stories are emerging of organisations who have made use of story for a range of business challenges. And around the world tertiary institutions and MBA programmes are offering story modules
  • Future: How we remember, plan and dream holds clues for more telling vision and scenario construction, pending transitions

Cynthia Kurtz wisely points out that story is not a panacea for business success. It is not necessarily dominant but complementary. It is with that in mind that we look at the areas where story is being applied by organisations and by practitioners, and where opportunities are being missed.

Where is the emphasis in business?

How and in what areas narrative practitioners (internal and external) and organisations are (and could be) placing their emphasis, is the subject of this document.