The Storied Context of Story Telling

By Charles Henry posted

On the first day of discussions at the recently concluded Leading Change Institute (LCI), participants were asked to identify challenges they believe are pervasive, that cross professional borders, and that would benefit from concerted exploration during the week of conversations and presentations. Among the challenges identified was story telling. How does one tell a persuasive story as a means to accomplish a desired goal? Telling stories is a profoundly important method of sharing ideas in our society. It is an ancient cultural and cognitive device that, while parcel to our basic intellectual strategy, is never easy. The integrity of exchange of one mind's content to another is unpredictable, especially so in the workplace in which so many stories compete.

A common scenario described during the LCI was pitching an idea in narrative form to one's supervisor in the hope of securing funding or other support to instantiate the idea. While there are many sources to consult about how to compose a good story, the more salient challenge is the act of interpretation or reception: how will the supervisor respond? This complexity seems to increase as one goes up the institutional hierarchy. Pitching ideas to a president or provost is often more difficult because of the churn of other stories and contexts that swirl around senior positions. Two instances come to mind of how the context of beliefs and previous stories can determine how a story is received and interpreted. Both are examples of scholarship and both show how the conviction of a deeply trusted story line can color and impede the reception of what amounts to a new story.

The first example is the Runamo Rock in Sweden. On this rock were markings that had been interpreted as runes for centuries. In the early nineteenth century a scholar named Finnur Magnussen wrote a hefty tome on the rock and its inscriptions, providing translations of the writing and drawings of the runes as they appeared on the rock face. It was a good story, but a few years after Magnusen's book was published, a younger scholar, J. A. Worsaae, published a short tract that exposed the markings on the Runamo Stone as natural cracks. Upon his close analysis, there was nothing approximating the lines and strokes of runes that Magnussen had proclaimed. The runes, the story they articulated (which included a celebratory salute to a legendary king and a prayer to the Norse god Odin), and the subsequent narrative of their retelling by the scholar Magnussen were determined to be false, and deemed a scandalous fabrication in the name of scholarship.

An insightful investigation of these events can be found in David Herman's Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind. Herman remarks that one of the reasons for Magnussen's interpretation (and the artist's supporting re-rendering of the cracks/runes) was a deeply held response to previous stories and interpretations that posited the mystery of the supposed human inscriptions: "Magnussen was in a sense primed to read the markings on the rock as the record of intentional communicative behavior . . . what remains remarkable is the hold that this initial interpretive hypothesis exerted over [him]" (27). The now disgraced scholar's work was framed by an earlier story he firmly believed, and assiduously dedicated much of his career to confirm. 

Another example of how one narrative can pervasively inflect and impede interpretation is the circumstances of the deciphering of the ancient clay tablet known as Linear B.  Arthur Evans, Britain’s most prominent archeologist of Bronze Age Aegean civilization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, led the archeological dig that revealed Knossos, the capital of the ancient Minoans (2700-1500 B C E) on Crete. In the course of the excavation and restoration Evans discovered clay tablets with two distinct language scripts, which he named Linear A and Linear B.

Evans set out to decipher Linear B (to date, Linear A has not been decoded). While he was open to other languages that might be related to or relevant for the decipherment, he strongly insisted on ruling one language out: Linear B could not possibly be Greek. Why? Because of an internal narrative that Evans had developed over the years that took hold of his imagination and his discernment. In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox writes, "as treasure after treasure was lifted from the Palace of Minos, and as mural after mural was restored to reveal images of bright flora, leaping animals, and handsome men and women clad in beautiful garments, Evans became convinced that the civilization he had unearthed at Knossos was older, higher, and far better than the rude Mycenae [Greek] of the mainland. Before long...Evans had fallen in love with 'his' Cretans" (79).

Like Magnussen, Arthur Evans was a prisoner to his mythologizing. In Evans' case, the Minoans became equated to what he believed were the finest qualities of the British Empire: sophistication, expansiveness, nobility, and utter refinement. In contrast, he saw the contemporary mainland Greek culture as crude and rustic. Linear B was eventually translated in 1952 by a young architect, Michael Ventris, who was unburdened by the bias of the romantic narratives of his predecessor. Linear B, as we now know, is a form of classical Greek.

Circling back to the Leading Change Institute, the identification of storytelling as a challenge to all prospective leaders is most appropriate. As these examples imply, the crafting of the story is one thing; its reception is another, with much of the complexity of the challenge residing in the circumstances of the latter. One quality of leadership, we can extrapolate, is to appreciate that when going into a room to tell a story—to make pitch for a new idea, or service, or technology—one must acknowledge that there are many stories, heard and unheard, teeming in that space.

Related readings

Robert Rix, "Letters in a strange character": Runes, rocks, and romanticism. European Romantic Review 16 (5) (2005): 589-611.

Michael Ventris, "Deciphering Europe's Earliest Scripts". BBC Radio talk, July 1, 1952. 

Alice Kober, "The Cryptograms of Crete," Classical Outlook 22:8 (1945a), 77-78.