Book Review: The Story Factor by Annette Simmons

We all grow up with stories. They come to us in books with brightly colored pictures, in tales populated by fairies and lonely stepchildren, and in our family recollections at the dinner table. Storytelling is an art that we are well versed in as children, but tend to leave behind as we make the transition into the adult world. Or do we?

The 2001 book The Story Factor, by Annette Simmons, examines how the ancient art of storytelling is interwoven with our daily lives in sometimes surprising ways, and how we can better make use of this concept in our interactions with others, especially our business interactions. Simmons upends the traditional role of the story, and explains how, rather than a tool for simple entertainment and enjoyment, storytelling can serve as a powerful tool in shaping perceptions and exerting influence over others.

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The Good

The Story Factor is filled with creative examples of ways that we can and do use storytelling techniques in everyday life. In order to share our experiences with others, we all employ a sort of internal editor, which sorts out the relevant information from the mass of trivial details, and constructs a story. For example, a resume is a form of story, as is a job interview or meeting a new neighbor. But we also consistently overlook the myriad instances in which we tell "our story," and as such, do not always pay sufficient attention whether or not we are telling the most effective or appropriate story, or using the best storytelling techniques for the given situation.

As Simmons explains, it is pretty much impossible for even those who know you closely to know everything about you. The majority of the people that you interact with on a daily basis know even less. So like it or not, we are all in a position in which we can only present portions of what makes us tick to others. But having an awareness of this idea doesn't mean that we need to artificially create a contrived image of our selves. Simply being aware of how our stories are presented, even if we have never sat down and told them, can be a useful tool, helpful in many different situations.

Conversely, we do not just tell our stories to other people, but to ourselves as well. We tend to create framing narratives about our personalities, "who we really are." Simmons devotes some time to discussing the idea of positive versus negative personal stories, and how significant they can be in shaping our mindsets and worldviews. Language commonly talks about roles, as in "I suffered a trauma, but did not want to play the role of the victim," but despite this, we still undervalue the importance of the of personal story, and just how our stories might shape our understanding of self.

For example, a common negative personal story is the "always busy mindset," in which we consistently tell ourselves that we simply have too much on our plates, which leads to feeling overwhelmed or overly busy, when in reality we could take that two hours out to schedule lunch with an old friend, or spend Sunday afternoon watching a mindless movie instead of going over work details for the upcoming week. What other negative personal stories are we allowing to define our personal lives, instead of focusing on more positive aspects of our lives, our pasts, or our personalities? This is not to say that we should discount the negatives in our life, our faults and flaws, but simply that they can be recognized without having to take a prominent role in the story.

Will storytelling leave the classroom for the boardroom?
Will storytelling leave the classroom for the boardroom?

The Bad and the Ugly

While Simmons puts an interesting angle on the idea of story as a vital component of our human interactions, the tone of her book can at times be off-putting to a general reader. She comes from a business perspective, as a corporate trainer for large companies, and writes primarily for people who are familiar with this corporate world.

If you don't have experience in corporate America, much of The Story Factor will sound like a foreign language. Constant references to "org charts" and the comic strip Dilbert will lose some of the audience, but there is still plenty of material for those who are unfamiliar with the business world. However, I did find aspects of the book unsettling, particularly the potential for misuse of these storytelling techniques. While Simmons does make a point of valuing the entire business community, from those at the bottom to those at the top,my concern is that some of the tools presented in the book could also be interpreted as tools for manipulating people, particularly manipulation by people in power.

As an example, Simmons tells a story about a plant that had to restructure to create a new product. As a result of the restructuring process, the majority of the plant's employees would lose their jobs. But the managers used a "vision story" to get their workers excited about the changes. Thanks to the clever use of storytelling technique, management was able to convince the employees to actively contribute to the process with enthusiasm, even though it would mean their jobs would be terminated at the end of it all. I had an extremely negative perception of this example on first reading, flashbacks of my own experience as a member of a transition team, and especially considering the recent economy, other readers might as well. My advice to a reader would be to look deeper into these examples, as a method of extracting a silver lining out of an otherwise negative experience, and not dismiss the book out of hand as it brings up some pretty touchy subjects given the current economic climate.

That being said, there is still some useful points that come across. The skills that Simmons is talking about seem as if they would be effective in many situations, both within the workplace and outside of it. The problem is that she does not cross the bridge herself between the corporate world and anything outside, leaving this task largely to the reader. While her overall tone is appealing to a person who is also business-minded, it can be somewhat off-putting to a more creative or idealistic individual. Still, I would recommend this book to both business and creative types, as long as you read with the intention of looking for the positives and what can be helpful for your unique situation.

Edited 1/4/12 AMB

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Comments 3 comments

The Story Factor 4 years ago from Haven't Decided

First, THANKS FOR REVIEWING MY BOOK!!! But since I'm a freak about using story for good, not for evil, I'm sure you will find on a second reading the story was used after everyone knew how it would end. The story was about IF we know we are leaving: do we leave a mess? or do we decide our code of honor requires we leave things better than before. This group happened to have a lot of ex-military people in it, they chose with full disclosure to give their full cooperation. It was pretty cool and they felt better than if someone had lied to them to get their cooperation.


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Anaya M. Baker 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Story Factor, thanks for weighing in! I've been thinking about your response over the last few days, and did revisit that section in The Story Factor. A few thoughts: First, I'd like to apologize if my review sounded overly harsh. Second, I think I should explain that my interpretation of the story regarding the plant closure was influenced by my own experience, my story if you will.

My last job (at a television station) came to an abrupt end when a company-wide meeting announced that the station would be closing its doors-- that DAY! Most of the employees packed their desks and were escorted to the door by hired security personnel. A small group of us, myself included, were kept behind, as part of the "transition team" that would facilitate the closing/merger. This was a difficult, nine-month long experience, and I deeply sympathize with anyone who has ever had to do something similar.

Needless to say, I think my own time on the transition team, working overtime to dismantle the station piece by piece left a very negative impression, which colored my interpretation of the story you shared.

On second reading, I was able to see the positives in the story, and able to appreciate that the use of story here was not to mislead and manipulate the workers, but rather to make the best of an extremely difficult situation.

I appreciate your taking the time to share your opinion, and am glad that I took a second look at both the story and my own feelings about it. I will also make a few edits to the review to reflect the new insights I have gained.

Best, AMB


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kryptowrite 4 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

An excellent review, very thoughtful, detailed, and well balanced. The author is lucky to have drawn your attention to his work.

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