Lori Silverman Q&A

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Three years ago when I was working on my dissertation, Lori Silverman did me the amazing kindness of sending me page proofs of her book, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results, so that I could use it in my research even before it was published. We have remained in contact since, and I look forward to meeting her someday.

Bio: The following is an excerpt from the bio on Lori’s Web site, and the full bio can be read here:

It was in 1999 that Lori Silverman came to truly grasp the need to make story work conscious and purposeful rather than happenstance. The turning point was the night before a keynote talk to eleven hundred people in Seattle, Washington, which she planned to give without relying on visual aids.

LoriPhotoBio.jpg.jpeg Through feedback from a friend who heard her practice she suddenly realized that something needed to replace the props—stories that brought concepts and ideas from her book Critical Shift:The Future of Quality in Organizational Performance to life. Soon after, she simplified her talks and queried colleagues for tales to tell. No more brain overload for those sitting in the audience.

In her consulting, varied kinds of future stories entered her strategy work, and storytelling to facilitate organizational change and performance improvement became a thoughtful occurrence. Yet something was still missing. But Lori chose to go with the flow and let life take its course. It soon brought the opportunity to coauthor Stories Trainers Tell: 55 Ready-to-Use Stories to Make Training Stick. While interviewing trainers, storytellers, speakers, consultants, and business leaders for the book she stumbled onto more answers — and more questions that stimulated the current book, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results.



Q&A with Lori Silverman:

Q: The book, Wake Me When the Data Is Over, has been out for just over two years, but organizational storytelling is evolving so rapidly that I would imagine you have already thought about changes for the next edition. What are the first things you’d change or add to the book for its first revision?

A: I have two reactions to this question.
First I’m not certain the field of story work in organizations has evolved since the book was written. The piece that is still missing for me as a strategist is story as an organizational core competency. I’ve yet to find an organization that has systematically thought about how story could be used in all its work processes, both internal and external to the enterprise. It’s my contention that until we change how we talk about this subject — and move from calling it “storytelling” which is a self-limiting term, to calling it “story work,” this broader context for integrating story throughout an organization will be hard pressed to occur.
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Secondly, there are several things I’d do in the next edition.
  1. I’d reconnect with each interviewee and ask them to update me on their organization’s progress with story. There hasn’t been any longitudinal data on story use as far as I know.
  2. I’d add several chapters that time did not allow us to research fully. They’d include topics such as story use in a recessionary economy, sales, innovation, and mergers and acquisitions. As someone who once worked in the field of career development, I love the application of story to the job-search process that you, Katharine, present in your book, Tell Me About Yourself.
  3. I’d add the composite results across all 72 examples which are in the article, “The Five Sides of Story”, to the book’s content and update it with data from the new examples. In this article (which outlines the story use model presented at the end of the Wake Me Up book), it becomes evident that telling a story may not be as powerful as some other approaches such as evoking stories from others, listening to them in a specialized way, the symbolic embodiment of story, and finding ways to employ story triggers.

Q: In your article “The Five Sides of Story”, that appeared in Communication World magazine in January/February 2007, you describe “five practices surrounding the use of stories that bring results:”

  • how to find stories
  • how to dig into them to uncover hidden patterns and themes
  • how to select those stories that need to be reinforced
  • how to craft memorable stories
  • how to embody stories to positively affect attitudes, thoughts and behaviors.

What are your thoughts today on these five practices and their utilization in organizations?

A: I frequently reference these topics in presentations to audiences of several hundred people across a variety of industries and organizations. Prior to delivering these talks, I always interview a minimum of five attendees. Most do not understand the difference between an example, case study, anecdote, etc. and a story. What it tells me is that organizations that think they are using stories really are not doing so. Even when I look online at story examples that several organizations make public, most are descriptions of situations or profiles of people or companies. As a result, Karen Dietz and I have crafted a piece that speaks to the distinctions between story and other forms of narrative called Narrative Forms.

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The second thing that stands out for me in these interviews is that few, if any individuals are cued into applications of story beyond storytelling — both the crafting and the oral tradition of delivering a story. So, while some organizational story practitioners may be working with clients on other types of story practices, organizations as a whole and their leadership are not consistently practicing them. Even within the industry of story use in organizations, I am now of the opinion that most practitioners have not grown their own learning in these other areas.
As a result, I believe the real power of story has yet to be realized in organizational settings.
Q: What are some of the cautions you advise in carrying out the 5 story practices you describe?
  • how to find stories
  • how to dig into them to uncover hidden patterns and themes
  • how to select those stories that need to be reinforced
  • how to craft memorable stories
  • how to embody stories to positively affect attitudes, thoughts and behaviors.
A: Overall, there is a significant different between implementing story as a “tool” or “technique” and seeing it as a core competence for running a business that can get it significant returns on investment, especially in a recessionary economy. In order to embrace these five practices, you need to embrace the latter mindset rather than the former. Unfortunately, articles and books continue to be written on it as a tool and technique. To see the bigger picture means educating leaders on the possibilities of what can be and a broader scope of business application.

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This is no different than what happened in the quality movement. In the mid-to late-‘80’s, everyone wanted to learn statistical process control (SPC; today it would be Six Sigma or lean manufacturing or root cause analysis). Only when failures happened did organizations recognize there might be fuller, richer approaches to the subject that meant shifting quality to the way you do business. The challenge we have is that story has not taken off with the same fervor as quality did two decades ago so its evolution as a field has been slower. My concern is that instead of evolving, the field of story work will disappear as so many other management approaches have over the years.
Until organizations begin to implement these five practices as a holistic package, we will not have the data to truly detail best practices in these five areas. This assumes, however, that organizations are astute enough to put measurement systems in place to ascertain the value of story work usage.

Q: If you could share just 1 piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative/working with stories with readers, what would it be?

A: We’ve overlooked a critical fundamental concept in the field of story work.

A: All story is narrative. However, not all narrative is a story. It’s extremely important to be able to distinguish between a story and all other forms of narrative (e.g., case studies, examples, profiles, news reports, etc.). Without this, you may invest money in a story-based initiative that will not provide the level of payback your organization desires. (These distinctions are brought forward in the piece, “Narrative Forms”).

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There are specific qualities that are integral to stories: They need to have a plot (a conflict), characters, dialogue (preferably both internal and external), a universal theme (key point that applies to all who hear, experience or read it), drama/intrigue, contrast, and sensory information (the ability to paint a picture in the mind’s eye). To use the word “story” for narrative forms that do not have these elements is misleading — and it causes a huge problem in the field: It waters down the meaning of the word, “story.” The consequence of this is that many organizations do not think they need internal or external “experts” in the field of story work to help them with their story-based initiatives.

Q: What’s next on your agenda for the field of story work?

A: I’m in the process of working with Karen Dietz to create a line of self-study products that provide the user with a significantly more detail than is in either of my books, Stories Trainers Tell and Wake Me When the Data Is Over. These products go beyond anything either of us has written and address issues we have experienced when teaching story work to others and in integrating it with the way all sorts of organizations do business.

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What has been really exciting about this work is that we are truly making the concepts in the field much more pragmatic and easier to access. Our ultimate goal is to have work groups work through the materials and apply them to their daily work as a way of addressing current challenges, especially those that appear chronic in nature. By doing so we know they will uncover new and emerging applications for story use and move the field forward.

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Dr. Kathy Hansen

Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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