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Dr. Ricardo Azziz

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The Critical Art of Storytelling

Posted: 04/15/2013 5:59 pm

Leading is about story-telling...

The English writer A.S. Byatt, whose novel Possession won the esteemed Booker Prize in 1990, observed in a piece titled Narrate or Die that "narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood." Indeed, as human beings we are all natural storytellers... some more innately skilled than others, but we all have stories to tell.

But what stories? And to what end?

Stories are a powerful way to inspire, to influence, and to persuade. Think of the much beloved fairy tales of our youth and the lessons they taught us -- the importance of grace in good times and bad (thank you, "Cinderella"), of trusting your intuition ("Little Red Riding Hood"), of embracing innovative solutions to problems ("Rapunzel")... and of watching out for trolls ("Three Billy Goats Gruff")!

The stories we tell as educators, as researchers, as clinicians, and as leaders can be equally powerful.

While academia is beginning to embrace the power of storytelling, our counterparts in the world of business have been quicker to do so -- perhaps because they recognize that the right brain is the inside track to a competitive advantage. In other words, whoever tells the best stories wins. And by "win" I don't simply mean "sells more, makes more." Increasing customer loyalty is winning. Driving higher levels of employee engagement is winning. Bridging the gap between "the vision" and "the work" is winning. Changing the culture is winning.

When I was growing up, my father was a university professor in the field of theoretical physics. Thanks to the writings of George Gamow, Richard Feynman, and many others... and to Dr. Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the discipline isn't quite as unfamiliar to mainstream society as it once was but it remains every bit as abstract. When we would start to learn about a new field of study, my father would always encourage my siblings and me to look back to the early writings of the discipline... because only then would we fully understand the precepts of the topic, begin to see the where bias and dogma may have crept in, and see the field in the broader context of human thought and development.

I was unaware of it then, but he was training us in the critical art of storytelling... showing us the importance of understanding all things within the story of their discovery and development, and within the broader narrative of human innovation.

The art of storytelling is essential for educators as we bear the responsibility of seeding a hunger for knowledge, igniting fires in the minds of our students, and leaving them at the end of every class wanting more. A decade ago, Janice McDrury and Maxine Alterio published what was billed as the first book to address the link between storytelling in academia and improved learning. Clearly, this is not a new conversation but it remains a conversation of consequence for higher education.

For researchers, storytelling involves translating the complexities of scientific inquiry into something journal and grant reviewers, funding agencies, government officials, and the public in general can get excited about. I remember how I felt the first time I read James Watson's The Double Helix, Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell ... here is a man who knows how to tell stories about science. And in a more contemporary example, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer. When Dr. Mukherjee started writing the book, he thought of cancer as a disease but came to view cancer as "an alter personality, an illness that had a psyche, a behavior, a pattern of existing." Through stories, he shares more about this disease than you could hope to learn reading any scientific journal.

Storytelling is also important for those of us who are clinicians, because we become better care providers if we learn to understand the narratives of our patients, their families, and the illnesses and needs they have. Our re-telling of their stories inspires hope -- even within ourselves as we shepherd the people we care for through challenging... and sometimes hopeless... times.

And, of course, storytelling is critically important for leaders. Because, first and foremost, leaders are in the business of selling. We are selling a vision, a project, a dream, a place, a need. We are selling a better and brighter future. Like our growing university.

The University of Southern Mississippi produced a video after Hurricane Katrina that opens with a story of vital scientific equipment being lost to Katrina's devastating winds with the exception of Station USM-3M01, a Southern Miss weather station. And as we follow the story, we learn that all that is known of Gulf water conditions during Hurricane Katrina comes from that single ocean buoy that held fast through the storm, soldiering on in the face of Katrina's fury, faithfully recording data.

The story says a lot about the grit and perseverance -- much more than any PowerPoint presentation, any chart or graph, any national ranking. When you hear that story, you know what determination is made of.

Remember, logic and reason live on the left side of the brain. That's the side of our grey matter that loves scatter plots and financial statements. But emotion? It lives on the ride side of the brain, and people are moved by it... moved to buy (which, of course, is a huge driver in the business world), moved to give, moved to act in purposeful ways.

The critical art of storytelling... Not to be underestimated.

 
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