As part of my current work around Culture, i find myself revisiting some of my earliest work around Storytelling, seeking to understand how the Dominant Narratives of our cultures are formed, and shared between us, and why it is sometimes so hard to get a new story held or adopted.
In this piece, i want to focus in on that notion of how stories are shared. Often when we discuss Organisational Change, we talk about narratives and sharing stories through the system, but the stories we share are not the codified stories held within the pages of a book. They are not stories where the ‘meaning’ is concrete, but rather stories where the meaning is constructed by the recipient. Essentially they are stories that inherently evolve or are translated, filtered and adapted.
Start with the simplest of ideas: i paint a future state, and share that to you, in my team through a story. It may be a data led story, or an aspirational one. It may even be carried in artefacts like PPT decks or project plans and mission statements. The story that i share is shaped according to my own understanding, and according to my intent. But the ‘meaning’ does not live in the story itself: it is still held in my head. And when i read that story, or share it, i do so through filters.
There are many of these filters: my own use of language, my conceptual understanding of key terms and topics, my established worldview, perspective, and power, to name but a few.
Even the simplest of stories work in this way: if i say ‘things will be fine’, there is still a lot of space for context in that story. ‘Things’ and ‘fine’ are both ambiguous, and ‘will be’ includes the potential for things not to be fine right now. What is ‘fine’ for me, in my context, may not be ‘fine’ at all for you, in yours.
When you receive that message, when the story lands, again it does not land in the abstract, but rather within your own context: your current understanding, your expectation of what i will share, and your experiences of what i have shared before, as well as your own worldview and filters.
And somewhere between the two of us lies the environmental context: the limits of our shared language to convey complex ideas, sometimes cross culturally, and the dominant cultural narratives that set their own context and frame around the story (e.g. established narratives of gendered power, or legal, moral, and ethical systems, or even adoption of technology.
I could add a lot more complexity, and further layers of filters, into this: some of it would be visible and could be consciously adapted, whilst other laters are more innate and harder to address.
At heart though, the point of the illustration and story here is to recognise that ‘Story Told’ is typically not ‘Story Received’.
Instead the relationship would better be framed as ‘Story Projected’ and ‘Story Constructed’, with a recognition that the two rarely fully align.