Karen Dietz Q&A
I first encountered Karen Dietz while working on my dissertation and have eagerly followed her work ever since. It is a true thrill and privilege to present her Q&A here.
Bio (from her Polaris Associates Web site): Karen Dietz, PhD., owner of Polaris Associates Consulting, Inc., works with leaders and executive teams who want to assemble and cultivate their most compelling stories, and tell them in ways that produces results. Her background in the diverse fields of folklore, creativity, strategy, organizational development, high performance teams, and interpersonal communication have allowed her to develop targeted approaches to executive storytelling and organizational narratives. As a coach, facilitator and storyteller, her clients have included Walt Disney Imagineering, Chase Manhattan Bank, City of Santa Monica, and Avery Dennison.
Karen draws on her experience in top-flight organizations to provide practical experience, guidance, and tools that can be put to work immediately.
Karen received her doctorate in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania and is the former Executive Director of the National Storytelling Network. She is a member of the National Communication Association, Organizational Development Network, the National Storytelling Network, an online organizational narrative community of practice Worldwide Story Work, the past president and former program chair of the Storytelling In Organizations Special Interest Group. Karen is also a certified coach in Vocal Awareness techniques, and is one of the few in the field of stories and organizations bringing together story and vocal skills for greater effectiveness. In addition, her personality type reports for work environments are popular and sold worldwide
In her own words: “With a PhD in Folklore, I’ve always been engaged with stories. When I moved from academics into business training and consulting, I was always listening for, working with, analyzing, and retelling stories as a part of my team building, org change, and leadership engagements.
“In working with senior executives and organizational change, I repeatedly saw how if a leader could tell a compelling story about what change needed to happen, and why, the chance of the initiative succeeding was great. If they could not tell a compelling story about it, I could guarantee the initiative would fail. Why waste all that money doing a year’s worth of research, recommendations, plans and action steps when it could all go so easily down the drain in just a few moments?
“In 2000 I decided to shift my business to working with senior executives, organizations, and their stories so they could stop wasting buckets of money. And be more effective!
“Over the decades, as a professional storyteller, I’ve been trained by some of the best performance storytellers in the nation.
“My goals for leaders are to increase their effectiveness, be compelling, capture the hearts and minds of people, and save money.
“My goals for organizations is to crystallize their identity through compelling stories, be more effective in both internal and external communication, produce bottom-line measurable results, and increase their profits.”
Q&A with Karen Dietz:
Q: You offer a workshop described this way: “For the past 20 years, a complete cycle of stories has been slowly dying while a new cycle of stories is rapidly growing. Understand where our culture is heading and how these changes in story impact your product/service, marketing and sales strategies.” I’m sure you could write volumes about this story cycle, but if you can summarize briefly, please tell readers the cause of this cycling of stories and a few key characteristics of the new cycle of stories.
A: I’ve changed my thoughts on this statement, somewhat. I am now focusing on the mono-myth of the hero and how inadequate it is today to meet our needs as a human race. Of course, the hero story will always be present. But today almost all of what we do has been reduced to the hero’s story or journey. Not everything we do is heroic, and there are plenty of other journeys than the hero’s. In fact, when I work with leaders, I talk about how the hero story that they’ve grown up with in an organization needs to be replaced by the magician’s story and journey. The hero’s journey is a story of an individual. The magician’s journey is the story of a community. It’s based in building community, telling and sharing stories of community in order to reach a goal. At some point, every manager has to put away the hero’s story of an individual making it happen. Instead, they need to become a leader who, as a magician, facilitates organizational change. I could write volumes on this topic, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to share some of my thinking about this.
On the story cycle: Why are we so steeped in the hero’s journey? I wish I knew. Organizational story professional Richard Stone talked many years ago about the “de-storification” of our culture. You can see it all the time in the formulaic movies Hollywood produces. And you can see it when the news media scrambles to identify a lone hero when in fact the story is about several heroes or a community of heroes. Where are the trickster tales? Where are the stories of community? Where are the king or queen stories? Where are the crone stories? I could go on. So as a storyteller, I am always asking myself, “What are the stories that are not being told that people might need to hear?” and “What different kinds of stories do I need to listen for?” I find those to be much more provocative questions that helps shape my work as coach, consultant, trainer, and storyteller.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 initially became involved in storytelling through graduate school where I was receiving my doctorate in Folklore & Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. I was exposed to storytelling as an academic subject, but it really made an impact on me when I got to know storyteller Ron Evans from Canada. As the keeper of the sacred stories for his tribe (Chippewa/Cree), he taught me the power of oral storytelling, and I learned the most about stories and storytelling from him. His lessons about the care and feeding of stories I still carry with me today, and I do my best to pass along what he taught me.Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: My definition of a story, adapted from my artist friend Peggy VanPelt along with author David Hutchens, is “an act of communication illustrating interconnections between characters, ideas, events, and even abstract concepts that provide people with packets of sensory material allowing them to quickly and easily internalize the material, comprehend it, and create meaning from it.” Notice there’s no mention of story structure (beginning, middle, end) or story arc (current state, transition, problem, resolution, conclusion). That’s because stories come in all shapes and sizes. Stories, particularly in their oral telling, shift and change to fit the context, audience, intent and a whole host of other factors. So stories and storytelling is malleable. I believe oral storytelling is the most impactful. But it really depends on the context/situation as to which story structure to use, which story elements, how to work the story arc, and which media to employ. By media I mean whether it’s written, on a CD or in video format. While oral storytelling is the gold standard, for me, other media are sometimes necessary, although there are always pluses and minuses to each type of media. The questions to ask someone wanting to effectively use stories/storytelling in an organization, is “What am I trying to do? What outcome am I trying to obtain? What kind of story/stories do we need to tell and in what media in order to reach our objectives?”Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: Storytelling has immense power to both heal and harm. It bothers me to no end that as a profession, we aren’t actively discussing examples of great organizational story work, and those that are deficient or abysmal. What passes for organizational stories/storytelling in a lot of cases is just pure junk. It’s terrible. Too many people treat stories and storytelling many times as if it is trivial, instead of immensely powerful. People with no or very little training think they can effectively work with stories and storytelling in an organization, which creates only mediocre results, I’m afraid. And we rarely talk about the dark side of story — those times when stories are deliberately used to harm and destroy others.Q: What future trends or directions do you foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline?
A: I think there are multiple events on the horizon for the discipline: a greater focus on ethics and quality; an improved skill base; and more knowledge sharing among story professionals. I also see organizational story work moving into becoming a core competence for organizations. Today it is seen too often as a mere tool, which is severely limiting and does not recognize storytelling as fundamental to an organization’s success. I would like to think that organizations are starting to realize that mastering stories and storytelling is a core competence to their business growth and operations. Personally, my passion is training leaders to become compelling storytellers as an essential leadership and influence skill. Coaching — workshops — I love it!
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: When telling stories, ask yourself “What am I giving others?” and “What am I giving myself?” An answer to both questions provides volumes of information about how you hope to connect with the audience, and what meaning the stories have for you personally. Knowing both is essential to mastering storytelling, in my humble opinion.
Q: What do you feel is organizations’ greatest obstacle in trying to get their message across, and how can story help?
A: Well, I think the greatest obstacle organizations face in getting their message across is the reliance on PowerPoint. According to Presentations Magazine, 30 million are created every day! PowerPoint is basically designed to convey information. Based on my regular exposure to these kinds of presentations, most are terribly dull. Storytelling is about engaging the hearts and minds of people and in business, moving them to action. Imagine trying to tell your organization’s story, or your project’s story, or your team’s story effectively by only using PowerPoint. Imagine trying to squeeze complex concepts and inspiration into a PowerPoint page. Remember the last presentation you heard and they read facts, figures and information off the screen? Ugh! Storytelling is 100 times more powerful and engaging. Electronic presentations are not all bad, and stories can be used in those types of presentations. But it does take some training in how to meld storytelling and PowerPoint together to create a powerful program.
The other obstacle I see that many leaders face is not knowing the right story to tell at the right time. For example, I’ve heard leaders tell again and again and again the story about why the organization needs to change. But people have already gotten that message and are past that. They are ready to be inspired about how the change has already begun and the progress that’s being made.
To sum up my philosophy about storytelling is a quote from author Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners: “There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”