Is Story Telling a Dying Art?

From earl53.redbubble.com/ (Source: morguefile)

From earl53.redbubble.com/ (Source: morguefile)

I love listening to stories.

In life, you’re either a story teller or you’re not.  Some people have the gift of the gab but I’m not one of them.  Unfortunately, that talent is not in my kit bag but I wish it was.

So instead, I happily listen to others recount their stories and try to recreate them in my head.  The more vivid, colourful and emotive the language of the speaker – the better it is for me.

Many years ago when I was in the Navy, the place was abundant with stories.  Walk into any office, cabin or compartment, you’d be guaranteed that there was some old salt spinning a warrie in their colourful language and naval slang about one time or another onboard some long gone decommissioned ship.  Some of the shenanigans and practical jokes they played on each other amused me because for that moment in time, I could forget my own work and be swept up into a different world and just laugh.  Navy story telling really seemed to bring out the humanity, the culture and the connection of this group of people – and I miss this in today’s work environment.

These old salts were mainly men, senior sailors who had served at sea for many years, travelled the world and wore their medals with pride.  They were people whom I trusted wholeheartedly because I valued their knowledge, skills and experience of serving at sea for many years. They knew their job, they were connected, they knew the system.

Story telling was one of the main things I missed when I left Navy to enter the corporate world. In particularly, the laughter.  I had never laughed in the corporate world as much as I did while I was in the Navy.

But today, I had a pleasant surprise – I got me a story!

For a change of scenery, I decided to work from another building.  The beauty of flexi-desking is that depending on my mood, I can pick and choose where I want to work every day.  Today I decided to work in another of my company’s building and while there, I ran into many people I used to work with – many of whom I hadn’t seen for two years.

One of these people, let’s call him John, greeted me warmly and we chatted about what was happening in our lives.

“Today is my 36th year working in the bank!” he exclaimed.

I was stunned to learn this. Nowadays it’s a claim that many of us cannot and will not ever make for our own work life.  The idea of spending 36 years in one company seems foreign to me and I asked him about the changes he had seen in those years.

“We didn’t have emails; faxes; computers; we did our paperwork by hand.  I recall at the end of every month, I had to physically go through large volumes of customer information and calculate the rates for every customer and physically write it into this book.”

“We could smoke in the branch, in fact, our tellers served customers while their cigarette lay in the ashtray on the bench.”

“We didn’t have all the regulatory rules and regulations, the tight controls  we have now. I recall that when we were counting money at the end of the day, we would place a gun on the bench.  Every branch had a gun and this was our protection against armed robbers. But they were different times back then.  Things were simpler.  We only had two products to sell.”

I asked him if he could pick out the best time in his 36 years, what would it be?

“The time we are in now. The recent years.  I’ve been in this role for the last ten years and I’ve enjoyed it because I’m out in the business, I’m on the road – I’ve done every job in the bank and worked for all its businesses but this role gets me talking to the people out there and that’s what I enjoy.  I can connect with them.”

So in effect, he’s enjoying his job because he gets to listen and talk to others in his role. He gets to hear the stories.

So it got me thinking.

Is our work or our experiences more important in a role?

And, if I had to tell a story as someone in corporate Learning & Development, what would it be?

Would it be about the day the personal computer was placed on our desks and the wariness I felt about having to learn WordPerfect?  Would it be the first time I wrote and sent an email?  Or the times people would email inappropriate images or content? Maybe there would be a story about our own dedicated IT geek to be called upon to personally visit us at our desk and fix our IT woes?  Would it be the slow realisation that the stores supply didn’t stock overhead projector lamps anymore because people now were spending inordinate amount of time formatting, reformatting printed A4 signs in Comic Sans and clipart for the kitchenette that told us to wash our own cups?

My corporate stories aren’t really that exciting but they are my stories and they tell people about a different time and place. I may not have spent 36 years in one company, but I’ve had the opportunity to work with some wonderful characters who made my workplace interesting and fun; and who taught me a lot about myself and my work.

This year, rather than spend my time focussing on the output [the tangible courses I design and develop], I’m going to hone my story telling technique and instead recall the situations, the experiences, the comments, the stories that led me to develop these courses instead.  I believe they’d be more interesting to others.  I’m also  thinking of bringing others on my journey by vlogging their stories and experiences.

In this day and age of flexi-desking, transient workers, shift in the way we work and connect, will story telling in the workplace a dying art?  I hope not.

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About Activate Learning Solutions

Helen Blunden is the founder of Activate Learning Solutions and Third Place. She has over 20 years of experience within learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in performance consulting and networked learning, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom and believes in the power of networks and communities to drive collaboration and meaning within the organisation. From facilitator-led instruction, online and blended, Helen deploys social and informal learning such as enterprise social networking, collaboration tools and emerging technologies that have been proven successful and embedded workplace change.
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5 Responses to Is Story Telling a Dying Art?

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  4. Thanks for your replay Mark, that is so true. There’s an opportunity to use more of the technology at our desks to capture our thoughts, reflections and evaluations of the project we worked on. In my experience, we completely miss this part out simply because we’ve moved onto the next project and we don’t have time to sit, think back and review what happened, why, what we learned and how we can do it better next time. Instead, these are explained if someone asks about the project some time down the track or get called upon to present our findings back to business. Then, we have to scratch our heads and try to recall what we did – we have the how [through documents, workshops, courses, project plans, design specs] but we don’t recall the ‘human’ element to it because we don’t record it and have to rely on memory. It’s the human element I’m talking about here too.

    For my projects, I’m going to incorporate short video snippets to capture peoples thoughts and reflections and upload these to a shared site for everyone to see. We’ll see how we go…

  5. Thoughtful post Helen. It got me to think that the stories will continue and can be just as rich as the bank employee having spent 36yrs in one organization. But given the technology we have our stories can be documented daily for others to see and enjoy and learn from in the moment, at any moment. A wonderful proposition is the potential for transparency.

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