storytelling as an antidote to data

In a recent memo to his company, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, again affirmed that slide decks were banned from executive meetings.  Instead of consuming data through bullet points on a projector, Bezos advocates a group reading of a narrative about the topic up for discussion.  His executives sit together in the conference room, silently reading a document that tells a story or explains a paradigm before they discuss the issue at hand.  While this might seem like an inefficient way to run a meeting, Bezos has tapped into the thing that helps us thrive as humans: we were made not just to capture and process knowledge, but to understand stories that help us make meaning.

In my World Literature courses, I begin the semester by asking my students why we tell stories.  As the discussion warms up and students begin to share, an apologetic for storytelling emerges: Stories educate, they inform, they explain and entertain.  Stories told in community do even more though; they help us understand who we are, what access to power we have, and what responsibility we have for each other. They teach us how to resist in meaningful ways, and they affirm our cultural connection to our communities. They teach us how and why we belong. 

Our society has developed incredible ways to collect and process data.  From Survey Monkey to Google Survey to professional pollsters, we are obsessed with gathering feedback.  This can be helpful when we use such data to evaluate our success or failure at achieving goals.  However, often it seems that good data proves we are successful, removing our need to engage with others in meaningful ways, processing their experience in real time.  Data is helpful, but collated data is incomplete without stories that help us make meaning of it.   For instance, I belong to some startups, and we are constantly surveyed for feedback.  Nevertheless, the interpretation of that data often seems to have failed to capture the overwhelming sentiment of most stakeholders.

It is easy to dismiss anecdotes as incomplete, simple snapshots that do not tell the whole story.  However, Bezos and other innovative leaders know the value of anecdotes to understand one’s experience.  There is a reason we read reviews of books, movies or purchased items, even though we see the starred rating.  The comments of others give us context for the starred reviews.   They help us understand and consider the source.

In an age of daily polls measuring optimism, disappointment, or approval, I’d like to urge us to take time to hear each other’s stories.  Polls and data support binaries, forcing us to either approve of or dismiss others.  Stories, on the other hand, allow us to listen for nuance, to recognize that we can support an idea while also being frustrated with parts of it.  We can endorse a candidate without loving every aspect of their behavior or actions.  We can belong to a community and struggle joyfully in it.  Stories allow us to tell our own narrative in the context of others.  When dividing ourselves into us and them is instinctive, telling a story about my experience with others carries with it a level of accountability to describe other people as people. 

Stories teach us how and why we belong. 

I am a follower of Christ, and according to eyewitness accounts, he was an obsessive storyteller.  Ninety percent of his time was spent walking around rural Galilee, chatting with random people, listening to and healing hurting people, and teaching crowds who loved the way he talked about God and others.  Jesus loved a good story, but more than that, he knew that the narrative arts offer a fantastic way to illustrate human frailty and hope.  Stories helped hearers find meaning in choices they faced, helped them understand people in their community, and forced them to investigate their own way of being in the world.

One of my favorite things about Jesus is also his most infuriating characteristic.  When people ask him questions, he responds with a story.  Like the character Raymond Reddington on NBC’s The Blacklist, Jesus appears to have never been in a hurry, nor to think understanding is best reached in a linear fashion.  Instead, he would tell a story that clearly or not-so-clearly illustrated his thoughts on the posed question.  I suspect he developed this habit for a few reasons. One, he rejected transactional relationships resolutely.  Two, he knew truth is often stumbled into, rather than logically arrived at.

Person: Hey Jesus, I’ve heard you know things (or think you’re important, or are saying things that make my power feel unstable). If you really know so much then answer this….

Jesus: [I see what’s going on here. You want to catch me in a morally compromising position, or you want a simple fix for your frustrating life, but that’s not how life works.  Morality is not to be weaponized or formulaic, but should encourage compassion and interdependence.  Besides, I’d rather chat with you for a while about other things that interest me. Let’s dream together about how the world is and what it could be.] Let me tell you about a guy I know….

Person: Oh I get it! I’d like to follow you around now; I think I need more of this! (or Oh! Wait….what? or Oh…hard pass, I’m out)

Maybe the point of life is not to efficiently convey facts or collect opinions for a pie chart.  Maybe the point is to swap stories about how the world works, about a community we could form together.

My favorite type of literature indulges in magical realism.  The idea is that sometimes truth is illustrated best through images or ideas that technically defy logic.  A feeling can be best conveyed through a fantastic story that might stretch the bounds of possibility.  Sure, a list of bullet points can get an idea across at Amazon, but a story illustrating the same idea can lodge itself into hearts and minds, creating a shared moment that builds community in the process.  Aren’t we all desperate for community?

In my own habits, I am trying to hold myself to a higher standard.  If I can’t get a thought across without a personal anecdote or a shared story, then maybe that point is better left not made. Data without context is incomplete.  Collect the data, complete the surveys, project your powerpoint, but don’t forget that we are people sharing our space and passion with other people, all telling stories.  Listen.