Cool Story Bro… be cautious of Organisational Storytelling and Silver Bullets

Wayne’s World. Excellent Organisational Storytelling?

Cool Story Bro. I’m feeling mildly guilty at the moment. I might have been a little bit over sceptical and grumpily dismissive of the heartwarming stories told at conference. I know, I sound like a cold-blooded reptile, but I’ll let you decide.

For the after lunch slot two highly respected leaders took to the stage and told their ‘stories’. Unfortunately, they were  basically the same story (despite the black and white photos taken 150 miles apart over 70 years) , which is where it  all went wrong for me.

Heroic individual saves a person in distress. I might have been able to ‘suspend reality’ and enjoy a single heartwarming story. However, listening to the same thing back to back felt a bit contrived, and snuffed out my Disney approved, ‘I Believe’ sensor. Here goes with the aggregated version;

  • Doris/George (insert names as appropriate) is in their 80’s and has lived a long and  happy life,
  • They had a fulfilling job, a neat home, raised a family and were solid members of their community,
  • Even during tough times they were resilient and self-reliant, having little involvement with public services (this is starting to sound like a Billy Bragg song),
  • Then, 5 years ago, Doris/George’s partner died,
  • Doris/George starts to go downhill. They become isolated, lonely, increasingly unwell and “bit of a burden on public services”,
  • You know this part of the story… Doris/George has repeat visits to the Accident and Emergency Department, involvement from Social Services etc, etc,
  • Enter the unassuming heroine from somewhere in public services (usually the voluntary sector) who battles against the ‘system’ and does something to change Doris/Georges’ life,
  • Doris/George is now a ‘ninja’ (stalwart) at the local Knitting Nannas / Men’s Sheds Club and is predicted to live independently until 105 years old,
  • And the moral of the story?
  • Small actions by dedicated public servants, prepared to be innovative, and operate outside of the system can change people’s lives,
  • Lovely…
  • Everyone is now inspired to go away and make a difference.

416b93f7-a070-4807-a3d9-27ea3b875a3c-36590-000019f9c1806a4dPass the ‘Cool Story Bro’ Hat. If  you’re a follower of  meme’s you’ll recognise ‘Cool Story Bro’  as an insult or sarcastic response used to dismiss a very long or ‘off the point’ story. In my opinion it can be equally useful in the world of organisation storytelling, especially if we can wear hats!

The fact that the conference stories were told so closely together did not help with my skepticism. I’m sure these were well-intentioned actions to get a message across, using ‘story’ as the method.

However, a few things rattling around my head made me question the approach. Specifically, how do you avoid ‘Silver Bullet Syndrome’ in organisational storytelling and come across as credible?


Sliver Bullet Syndrome and Organisational Story Telling. This is going to sound really bad, but it felt like the stories I heard at the conference were a good illustration of; Stage 8 of the Life-cycle of a Silver Bullet – Standardisation and Superficial Copying.

Storytelling, done properly, is a really powerful and effective way of sharing knowledge and shaping the way people behave in organisations, and wider society – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It’s not just another new ‘business tool’.

Just to reinforce my suspicion that organisational storytelling has become ‘industrialised’, this week I received yet another invite to a Storytelling Course. It was giving me the chance to “…set sail towards a more engaging and succinct narrative…to move beyond data, ‘facts’ and information…to create a shared vision of success that will, inspire, unite and motivate colleagues.”  I’m not making this up. It was all neatly compressed into a day long course for the meagre sum of £750 (plus VAT).

Really? That does smell a bit like ‘Standardisation and Superficial Copying’ to me.  I reckon I would take a bit more than a day long course to get me ‘setting sail’ as an expert storyteller.

My preferred approach to becoming proficient at something is to take time to understand, and practice…. lots of practice! A good starting point is to read things that clearly explain the theory and gives pointers on the practice.

With that in mind I’d strongly suggest reading this by Dave Snowden; Narrative Patterns, the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations. 

I read it first a few years ago and I’m now seriously looking at it again; in a lot of detail. Concepts like Anti Stories and the differences between Fables, Myths and Viral Stories all have huge relevance in all aspects of organisational life.

What stands out is that using stories requires diligence and skill that has to be developed over time. A quick fix silver bullet solution is unlikely to help you sound credible or make a difference.

Finally, are there ‘Universal’ Stories?  I know I said I felt mildly guilty for my skepticism, and this is part of it. At the core of the conference stories was the idea of someone who falls on hard times, meets someone who helps them and is put back on the straight and narrow.

That might sound familiar, because it is. It’s a plot common to many films and books and had been extensively covered by people like Kurt Vonnegut who talk about the Seven Universal Stories.  Maybe the conference speakers have been unlucky enough to have chosen the same universal story to speak about? More about that in the next post.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Storytelling is an effective way of sharing knowledge and shaping behaviour. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.
  2. Like anything worth doing it’s not a quick fix or silver bullet. It takes time and practice to learn how to do it effectively.
  3. Get it wrong, and you run the risk of people putting on their ‘Cool Story Bro’ hats (and T-shirts). We are all quite good at spotting duff stories.

An Update. Here’s a indicator that the ‘industrialisation’ of a method might be well underway, and things are approaching ‘Peak Stage 8’ of the Silver Bullet Lifecycle.

Have a look online to see if it is being combined with any of the latest hot subjects or management fads and sold as a half day course. Try searching for: Digital Storytelling, BigData Storytelling or Agile Storytelling…Cool Story Bro!

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

4 Responses

  1. Well said Chris, and you’re touching on two things that are very pertinent to me at the moment. I use my (actually Geoff’s) story to get my point across when I’m asked to speak at conferences about the importance of hospital staff knowing about the whole person. I’ve done enough of it to be sure it’s a much more effective way to reach and engage the audience than presenting a dozen graphs and statistics. But you’re right, there can be too much of a good thing. And the thing that keeps me awake at night is ensuring that Mycarematters doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming a Silver Bullet – lots of enthusiasm out there at the moment, and everyone ‘knows’ that we need a way to ensure a patient’s non-medical information is available to all those interacting with them. But if it is to effect lasting change there needs to be a fundamental shift in the medical model to a more holistic approach. And that’s not going to happen overnight!

  2. […] I promise I will write that post soon (on the train to Bangor on Wednesday) and walk away from the pit of poisonous snakes. All I’m going to say for the moment is that core to it is the idea that ‘the story is the measure’ of what is happening in a complex system. Oh, and by the way I don’t mean manufactured ‘corporate stories’. I mean real stories told be real people in their own, unfiltered words – a bit like what I’m talking about in this post; Cool Story Bro… be cautious of Organisational Storytelling and Silver Bullets […]

  3. […] I love a good story. What I mean is the messy, unpolished and authentic stories people tell about real life. The stories I don’t like are the ones manufactured as part of ‘corporate storytelling’. To engage staff, get a message across, change culture (ha ha ha ha!), ‘sell’ the need for change or indeed ‘sell’ anything. It’s just the way I am. I’ve even written about it the need to be cautious around corporate story telling. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s