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Beyond storytelling: narrative intelligence

In my book, The Secret Language of Leadership, I introduce the concept of narrative intelligence. I do this, because "storytelling" seems to imply a one-way relationship -- "I tell the story and you are to listen." An adept use of narrative and storytelling takes place with in a two-way, interactive relationship. Successful leaders are not just good at storytelling -- they generally display strong narrative intelligence.

In principle, we shouldn’t be surprised at the primary role of storytelling in communications about change. We know that human beings think in stories. They dream in stories. Their hopes and fears reside in stories. Their imaginations consist of stories. They plan in stories. They gossip, love, and hate in stories. Their emotions have a narrative character. Their decisions rest on narratives: as philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre has pointed out, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (After Virtue). Storytelling is closely associated with the very conception of the self.

Although we shouldn’t be surprised by the idea that storytelling is important to leadership communications, the fact is that we are. In fact, at first glance, it often strikes business executives as profoundly counterintuitive. This is not what we were taught at school. It’s not how we’ve been trained. It’s not the norm in formal organizational meetings. Our mantra has been that analytic is good and anecdotal is bad: it isn’t logical to generalize the idiosyncratic vagaries of a single story to an entire population. And so we go on making PowerPoint presentations full of abstractions and bullet points, like medieval doctors slicing patients’ veins to remove excess blood, not realizing that everything we are doing and saying is making the situation worse.

The notion that a deep understanding of narrative is key to transformational leadership strikes many people as surprising and in some sense unacceptable idea. And yet it has an even more surprising dimension than that.

If it’s true that we think in stories, and make decisions in the form of stories, then what this means is that all forms of communication directed toward action—not just stories themselves, but questions, metaphors, images, offers, challenges, conversations, arguments, data, whatever—are effective to the extent that they generate a new story in the mind of a listener. If yes, then the communication is effective. If not, then the communication fails. These varied communication tools are effective when they point to a story.Story provides a unifying concept to understand whether and to what extent any communication directed toward action will be effective.

And if that is so, then narrative intelligence—the ability to “think narratively” about the world—is central to leadership. But what exactly does it mean to think narratively about the world? It means the capacity to understand the world in narrative terms, to be familiar with the different components and dimensions of narratives, to know what different patterns of stories exist and which narrative patterns are most likely to have what effect in which situation. It also means knowing how to overcome the fundamental attribution error and understand the audience’s story. It implies the ability to anticipate the dynamic factors that determine how the audience will react to a new story and whether a new story is likely to be generated in the mind of any particular audience by any particular communication tool.

The ability to think narratively—that is, narrative intelligence—reflects a recognition that the narrative aspects of the world matter because human goals matter, and narratives encapsulate human goals. The pattern of words that we use matters: are they abstract, cold, impartial, objective, inert, seemingly remote from human goals? Or do they have all the richness and texture and objectives of human existence, making them likely to engage an audience? And the sequence of patterns matters: one order generates excitement; the opposite generates hostility. And the stories that these patterns of words elicit in the listeners’ minds matter. And the responses, witting or unwitting, in the form of a nod, a smile, or a frown from the listeners matter. And what the leader does about those responses matters, whether the responses are encouraging or discouraging. And the interaction among narratives matters, an interaction that is taking place in seconds: a single word, or phrase, or sequence, at the right time—or out of place—makes all the difference. The outcome—one way or the other—will be decided in a flash. An ability to act and react agilely in this quicksilver world of interacting narratives is the gist of narrative intelligence.

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