Slave to the Narrative

I had a funny experience this week. “Funny” may be the wrong word, I maybe should say “tragic,” but I am caught between feeling it and thinking about it, in true Walpole form.

I am a strong proponent of the power of narrative and/or story (they are different) for transmitting information. As a result, I was invited to a talk by Nahum Gershon given to some senior leaders. I’m not going to identify who the leaders were or even which organizations they are or were leaders of, but I will say that they came together because they have a self-identified agenda of improving their organizations singly and in aggregate.

Some of them had felt Dr. Gershon’s work would be valuable to this effort, or should at least be considered. Instead of coming to the talk with an eye towards considering narrative and story as a potential tool for their goal, many of the attendees demonstrated how closed they were to this approach…loudly. The speaker was not even able to get through his introductory example before members of the group were interrupting him.

Their objections were often strawmen they’d created in order to object, but I also heard the famous “that may work for other organizations, but not for us; we’re special” and “we already tried it and it didn’t work.”

I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut.

Upon reflection, however, I realized that this rather horrid and rude audience response only served to underscore Gershon’s point (dare I say his narrative?).

Gershon, like others who understand the strength of story, was trying to get the audience to understand that while we may think we are making decisions rationally, with our right brains, in fact a lot of the decisions are made much faster emotionally, with our left brains, and our right brain just gets the task of rationalizing what we’ve already decided.

The audience fought him hard on this: What if we insert unintended narratives? But our clients, those he’s saying we should tell stories to, aren’t emotional. They are rational and need to make rational decisions based off of rational presentation of facts. HITLER USED NARRATIVE (yes, they Godwined him).

Gershon attempted to advise that the best decisions are a mindful mix of these two approaches, but the audience was stuck in their…negative emotional response. That’s right. They had an emotional response to his story, and acted accordingly. He said that appealing to audience’s emotions is a complex and powerful skill, and the audience reacted with fear, with anger, with bullying.  They approached near-panic levels of LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.

And now I know: it was neither comedy nor tragedy, but dramatic irony. You know, the type of story that pretty much keeps the universe running.

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