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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.
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.
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