Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Storytelling and reason in balance

In The Storytellers, Seth Godin talks of the power of storytelling. Google lists over six million hits on storytelling. Stories are a popular and seemingly effective way to communicate information and emotion. The news (both print and TV) seem to use more and more stories of individuals and how they've been affected by an event, rather than using numbers and words to put an event in perspective. I've even published an article called Telling Stories.

On the surface, that seems okay—art, music, poetry, and stories can all add dimensions to information and capture our imaginations in ways that numbers and "business prose" don't, at least for most of us.

Perhaps relatedly, Gary Klein's work on decision making has been popularized in recent books. Klein focuses on mental simulations as a key component of how we determine if a decision is good: can we play it out over time and get the sort of results we want? In a way, that describes us telling ourselves a story and seeing if it hangs together.

I've been trying Klein's method over the last few months, and there are things I like about it. For one, it may show me things that I would have missed had I not done the mental simulation.

As Barry Richmond noted, though, we aren't always good in carrying out our simulations. Too, when we don't compare alternatives, we may lock in on our first impressions and miss a far better solution. James Reason warns of that in his book Human Error.

Perhaps most importantly to me is the idea that relying on others' stories to make decisions is an abdication of my responsibility for making decisions. I'm letting others decide what facts are important and what reactions I should have, rather than analyzing the data myself and seeking alternate explanations. If I'm in a true hurry (as are many of the subjects Klein studied), I may not have time for more. When I do have time, I may be doing myself a real disservice.

Edward Tufte has advocated an approach I'm liking more and more: PGP, which stands for Particular-General-Particular. When communicating complex information, start with a particular example to capture the imagination. Follow up with more general information (this is where you can explore alternatives and do more detailed simulations or analysis). Finish with another particular case to drive the point home and help people remember.

That approach includes both the rational and the emotional (storytelling) aspects. It helps us remember the concepts and commit to decisions while at the same time encouraging each of us to make up our own minds based on the best insights we each have. It's consistent with the principles of action science, which I've found quite helpful in organizational work. It may help us make better decisions overall, and it may lead to more overall commitment to the final decision.

What do you think?

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