Humans are storytellers. From time immemorial we have told stories to explain things we didn’t understand, and to paint a picture of a present and a future that others would accept and help make a reality. Inevitably this addresses the big questions of our existence and so encompasses religion, philosophy and politics where, unlike science, there are few objectively correct answers. That is not to say that science has or is capable of identifying the right answer to all questions, but it is intended to tell stories in a different way.
Stories are very powerful. Most are well intentioned, but some are deliberate falsifications. It’s very difficult to tell them apart. Steve Jobs was notorious in Apple for his so called “reality distortion field” – a refusal to accept “the facts” as others saw things. But the stories he told about what was possible and how it could be done drove herculean efforts from his colleagues to make things so – often successfully.
Other stories fill in the blanks at the edge of knowledge – well-meaning but not based on fact. The most robustly defended stories are often those based on little objective fact. To attack those stories is often taken as an attack on the individual or group espousing such stories, yet the greatest developments in the human condition often arise from synthesising different stories to encompass a wider set of truths as a result.
As I write this piece I have just read Matthew Paris in today’s Times writing that, even though he is an atheist, he is profoundly moved by the Christmas story, not really despite it being untrue but rather more because he knows it to be so. I heard, on the Today programme, Mishal Hussain interviewing Lubaina Himid – the 2017 Turner Prize winner. Amongst her work is a 100 piece dinner service onto which she has painted images of black faces relating to slavery. She explained that wealth had been brought to many cities in the UK by black people and she wanted that to be thought about. She neatly dismissed a question that suggested that this had been resolved in modern multi-cultural Britain by saying if that were true then there would have been no question to ask. She explained that she wanted to tell the story differently, from another perspective which was a very powerful statement and made in a way that wasn’t confrontational.
We constantly use stories in business. Successful business cases tell a story of a better future projected from a recognisable present. Explaining variances in actual spend to budget is telling a story and often less objective fact than we might think. A person I reported to a few years ago was an expert at this. Not only did he home in on the variances that I didn’t have the best explanation for, he would then come to my rescue when I was struggling by telling me we should look at it this way, a way that invariably made sense and tied matters into the issues and plans the organisation was focused on at that time. As he was Deputy Managing Director and FD his perspective was usually accepted unquestioningly by his colleagues.
We do tell stories differently in IT sometimes, and not always in a way that our colleagues recognise. We often feel we are rational and fact based and that it is less valid to be emotional about matters. This can lead to disagreements, which may be better avoided. The most powerful rejoinder when hearing a story that you don’t fully recognise is not to state that the other person’s perspective is wrong and to refute it, but rather to state that you see matters differently and explain why – telling why you think your story takes the issue forward. This is much easier said than done – and much more beneficial when achieved. The goal should be to have a common story to take forward, not to win points by having your version accepted, especially if only temporarily.