Q and A with Jessica Lipnack

I could not be more pleased to present the second in my series of Q&A interviews with story practitioners. This interview is with Jessica Lipnack, whom I first encountered early in this decade through her expertise in virtual teams, another one of my interests. I read her book (co-authored with Jeffrey Stamps), Virtual Teams, and drew on it heavily in teaching my students about virtual teams and guiding them through a virual-teams project. I was delighted to find that Jessica was a member of Worldwide Story Network and thrilled that we share interests in both virtual teams and storytelling. Learn more about Jessica below.

Bio: Jessica Lipnack is the CEO and co-founder of NetAge, a consultancy that provides advice, education, and ideas on virtual teams, collaboration, and organization structures. She is the co-author (with Jeffrey Stamps) of six non-fiction books on this subject, including Virtual Teams, The Age of the Network, and Networking. She has written articles and op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Seattle-Post Intelligencer, The Industry Standard, New Age Journal, Mother Earth News, and more. As a fiction writer, Jessica’s work has appeared in Ars Medica, the Global City Review, Mothering, and The Futurist. Jessica lives in Massachusetts. For more information, visit her website and blog.

Q&A with Jessica Lipnack:

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’m a writer. Writers tell stories regardless of genre — fiction, nonfiction, poets, business writers. I’ve been writing stories professionally since I took a job as a reporter for my hometown newspaper when I was sixteen. I worked at The Pottstown (PA) Mercury for four summers, eight-hour shifts, five or six days a week, and wrote a lot of stories. When Jeff Stamps and I started writing books for organizations (e.g., Networking, The Age of the Network, Virtual Teams), we included stories in all of them. But not just stories. After exposure to the work of Ned Hermann, we understood that people have differing cognitive preferences, different ways that they learn. Some respond most strongly to vision, some to theory, some to method, some to stories. Hermann’s approach became a design principle for our books — all four cognitive styles had to be included with every chapter. That said, we’ve begun nearly every chapter in every book with a story so as to engage people emotionally.

And, I’ve done some acting. There you learn how to connect your words, your expressions, and your gestures emotionally. Learning to act, at least in the limited way that I have, has helped with presentation skills, critical to good storytelling.

And and I’m a public speaker. By the time you’ve given a hundred speeches, you figure out what connects with audiences and what doesn’t, how to pace yourself, when to be funny, and when to be dead serious.

Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?

A: Four things here:

  1. The best writers — or at least the ones I love, big names like Doris Lessing and Geraldine Brooks, both of whom write both fiction and nonfiction, and best-kept secrets, like Roland Merullo, who writes superb novels and superb nonfiction – have had the greatest effect on my storytelling. I’ve learned technique by reading them. The list of all who’ve influenced me could be very long but Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a popular and recent book that’s been helpful; EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, a lecture series from long ago, is worthy of study; and Ursula Le Guin’s advice is in a category of its own for its usefulness for anyone truly committed to storytelling.
  2. I’ve been influenced by business people who tell good stories: an oil company executive who put his company’s one-hundred-year history on huge wall boards that he walked his colleagues around, explaining the challenges facing them; an Army general who has the authority to require senior officers to blog, which he has. These people understand the power of story — and how to reach people deep inside, where truly meaningful change transpires.
  3. I’ve benefited immensely from being a member of Francis Ford Coppola’s writers’ site, Zoetrope.com. Although the site is for fiction writers — including screenwriters, poets, short story writers, and, inevitably, novelists, its structure encourages writers to critique one another’s work constructively.
  4. My literary agents and my editors have been terrific and indispensable teachers about language and shaping big stories.

Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?

A: I’m in. I keep Endless Knots, an active blog, am on LinkedIn (though I’m trying an experiment there where I only accept inbound links but don’t actively link to others), Facebook, and, yes, I have my avatar on Second Life, plus a bunch of others. You’re telling your story everywhere you appear online — when you write your profile, list your favorite music, post your pictures or videos. All of it together becomes your story.

Of these, the blog is the most powerful storytelling device for me — and, I think, for some of my friends in professional positions. (Much as I’d like to make films, I’m not a filmmaker — yet ☺

The power of storytelling for executives cannot be overemphasized. One colleague is using his blog to help transform his hospital’s culture — and clinical outcomes — simply by telling the ongoing story of what’s happening in his academic medical center.

Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

I’ve published short stories but I’ve yet to publish a novel (one is complete, another on the way). Much of what I practice professionally, as a management consultant, I express in my fiction. Fiction makes it easy to say difficult things—and to create worlds that are positive and optimistic.

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

Learn the craft of storytelling from the geniuses who write and who perform.

Q: Do you see a role for storytelling/sharing to build cohesiveness in virtual teams?

Very much so. When you’re bringing together people from diverse organizations, disciplines, cultures, countries, and time-zones, i.e., virtual teams, it usually means they don’t know one another. They come to know one another by sharing their stories, so this is a critical part of their work. Even the lowly conference call is a venue for telling stories. As a matter of fact, every conference call is a storytelling opportunity. To get “the voices in the room,” the opening to any good conference call, good facilitators/team leaders in essence ask people to tell a little story: What did you have for breakfast? What’s your favorite movie of all time? What music were you listening to before this call (or, if you’re one of the old breed that still travels to work ☺

, what were you listening to on the commute)? These answers are mini-stories that build trust and cohesion.

Q: You write about Web 2.0 in your blog: “Virtual teams have always been in the 2.0 world, adding content to their shared online spaces, carrying on conversations after the lights have gone out, trying out new media. But the explosion of 2.0 technologies — and the advent of a generation that knows more about how to work online than their bosses — has altered (and will continue) to alter the virtual team landscape.” Also, in the article, “The Strange Beauty of Virtual Teams,” you describe the study you did for Harvard Business Review,in which you found “four out of five teams used the very simple ‘killer-app’ combo available to nearly everyone these days: conference calls with screen sharing (via the Web) coupled with shared online workspaces.” You also found that most virtual teams use their meetings to resolve conflict and make decisions.

All of this is a long-winded lead-in to the two-part question: Given that these Web 2.0 technologies can be seen as storytelling vehicles and the generation that most uses them is accustomed to telling stories using these technologies, to what extent do you think storytelling will play a role in the way Web 2.0 continues to “alter the virtual team landscape?”

A: If we compare the work setting today with what was available even ten years ago, we see a world rich in storytelling possibilities. Every medium allows us to tell stories in different ways. As new technologies come online and the people who grew up using the new technologies move into leadership positions, we’ll see them encouraging the use of more diverse media — whether in virtual worlds or via micro-bursts, like Twitter. I think the “story” will spread across more media, which means people’s ability to use these media and acquire the behaviors necessary to collaborate productively will face some pretty steep challenges. The risk we run is that everything will become so fragmented that we need to become detectives to piece our stories together. Every project is its own story and it’s important that we capture it in process so that we can learn and apply our learning very quickly.

Q: Given that meetings of virtual teams, according to your HBR study, cut right to the chase, is there a role for storytelling in a typical VT meeting?

I don’t think we said that in the HBR article, “Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?” In fact, we implied the opposite. Several of our findings revolved around conversation — allowing conversations to wander, pairing strangers and those with conflicting points-of-view, using multiple media for communication. All of this contributes to shared understanding, which only comes about through people telling one another their stories.