Riveting: three kinds of storytellers

It's a living cliche. The audience hangs on every well-chosen word.

First there was the woman who recognized that her other-than-business relationship with the boss was wrong.

Then the candidate who admitted he lied on his job application and was hired just because he made that admission.

And the waitress who paid such close attention to detail that you'd think she owned the restaurant.

The laborer who says it's his job to do, not think, because the boss only tells him what to do but never gives him sufficient information to think through a situation.

The attorney whose boss told him to "lose" records, and though the case was settled out of court before he had to choose between his boss and his ethics, he still left the law firm.

The mine operator who refused to give up even four days after a mine explosion, and ultimately found 18 dead--but five people still alive.

J.G. Pinkerton is that former mine operator, and he tells stories. Stories about work. Stories about work that other professional storytellers send him from around the world via email.

PawPaw is what he calls himself. And no doubt that's what his seven grandchildren call him, too. You can just imagine a preschool, pig-tailed listener climbing on the knee of this man who looks just like Santa Claus, and reveling in tales of life in the small, rural Texas town were PawPaw grew up.

From Junction, Texas, through World War II and university studies, and working for a natural resources company in the United States, Australia and Panama, PawPaw listed and remembered. Seven years ago, he was a corporate manager when he found himself a captive audience of an airline in-flight magazine, reading an article about the renaissance of storytelling. Now he is "retired" and dedicated to the art. He has traveled six continents performing and teaching and promoting storytelling.

"Storytelling keeps the present in touch with the past, reaffirms values, and passes on wisdom in an entertaining and memorable manner," Pinkerton says. If that sounds like something a grandfather should do, it is. It's something business people should do as well, he says.

A growing number of corporations see storytelling as a critical piece of knowledge management. Eastman Chemical, IBM, Walt Disney Imagineering, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard and Capital One are among many companies training employees to apply storytelling to business concerns such as narrowing the cultural gap that hinders the transfer of information. They are working through the National Storytelling Association (www.storynet.org), and PawPaw is one of its 6,000 members, having served six years on its board of directors.

Might storytelling be the communication approach to instill values most effectively and create understanding in the global marketplace?

Pinkerton says there are three kinds of storytellers. Situation storytellers create narratives about the recent or distant past, as in, "Remember when grandma said...." You run into them regularly at reunions.

Platform storytellers are the performers, the professionals, who actually keep a distance between themselves and the audience.

Then there are the conscious cultural storytellers. You probably know one or two at work. They pass on cultural and ethical stories. They capture stories, and they have a positive one to balance every negative rumor. (Otherwise, it's just the whiners meeting for a beer after work.) With attention to details, they invite others to visualize and connect.

"I want my audience not to just know 'his leg hurt'; I want them to see him limp down the street," Pinkerton says. But that doesn't necessarily translate into long, drawn-out stories. "Brevity helps both storytellers and listeners." You know he's skilled when he can take you through an entire narrative, feeling all the emotion, and conclude in two minutes.

It's clear his talent is in face-to-face communication. But storytelling is not limited to that mode. It can't be, with the growth of online communities. Our ancestors may have gathered around flickering fires to hear the generations tell stories. Today we gather around the flickering screen to read them. Tradition, morals, and rituals are finding a home in keystrokes, not just syllables. Yes, we lose the gestures and the sound, but not the words. And it won't be long before the gestures and sounds are online for everybody, too.

This article first appeared in Communication World, October-November 1999, published by the International Association of Business Communicators.