Storytelling in the 4th Industrial Revolution

As PowerPoint celebrates its 30-year anniversary, it occurred to me how immured we are by its impact in organisations. The ability to bulletise even the most complex ideas has changed the way ideas are transferred and using a PowerPoint deck to communicate everything of importance within an organisation represents the nadir of human connection. PowerPoint provides the illusion of engagement. Less-is-more is the mantra regarding a PowerPoint deck but invariably less becomes less.

 A story with universal themes, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.

A story with universal themes, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.

I had a manager once who was exacting and thoughtful and just the right amount of demanding, which were all wonderful characteristics of a leader. We thrived under his leadership. But he did have one annoying characteristic and that was to ask that any proposal we put together for him be written in a document, rather than a PowerPoint deck. Our recently acquired, and now wired-in behaviour, to summarise our arguments and proposals into a set of PowerPoint slides, felt much more efficient than the long-winded and frankly tedious exercise of actually thinking and then putting those thoughts into prose. 

While we all acknowledged that there was something rather wonderful about discussing an idea with real sentences as supporting material, it has taken me years to realise that what felt inefficient was in fact very effective. I still reference some of these documents and suspect that a PowerPoint deck would be much more difficult to understand without the accompanying context.

Last week I had the joy of facilitating an afternoon with a group of HR leaders who are actively engaged in improving the use of storytelling in their business. What struck me about the afternoon was just how engaging and energising it is to communicate using stories. How much richer our organisations would be if the confidence of assembling a PowerPoint deck was replaced by a confidence in putting a compelling story together. 

Of course there is an inherent paradox in teaching people to tell stories—storytelling is one of the most human things we do. Everyone is a storyteller. In every culture, in every part of the world, people gather around in groups and tell stories. Stories affirm that our lives have meaning and that we are like other people. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories—often about other people. Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Robin Dunbar found that stories have evolutionary utility and that social topics, especially gossip, account for 65 per cent of all conversations in public places. 

Having only worked in organisations for 20 years, I am in no position to comment on a pre-PowerPoint world but my suspicion is that people had to work that bit harder to engage and influence without the back up of an interesting and often-entertaining slide. I think of the hours that I have spent in deep frustration beautifying slides when all that mind power could have gone into crafting a much more effective yarn. The good news is of course that the benefits of organisational storytelling are being increasingly recognised. Storytelling helps organisations unravel complexity by explaining the context and, crucially, the why. The same manager of the document fame used to say that ‘context is everything’. A good story helps to frame this context. Stories create a personal connection between the storyteller and listener that also allow the listener to imagine future possibilities. Stories really do make concepts and data more memorable. In short, people remember the stories that have been told rather than the slides they have been shown. 

The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) will require organisations to be even more human. Well-told stories will be at the heart of this. As we stand on the edge of this new technological revolution, everything that we know about the way we live, work, and relate to one another will change. Empathy, connection, creativity, cross-cultural understanding and collaboration will be at the core of what we will need to do to remain relevant (and happy). The thread that connects all of these capabilities—storytelling. Shared stories are a way for people to feel that they have a collective purpose, a coherent grasp of their world and a way to articulate universal meaning. 

I was recently introduced to the epic story of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest story. The familiarity and universality of the story felt familiar but contextually different. And this is what sits at the heart of storytelling. The real reason that we tell stories again and again is because we want to be a part of a shared history—when what we know is unstable and how our world works erratic, stories that connect us to the most human of experiences provides an anchor point from which we can navigate all that the 4IR will throw our way.

Sam Rockey