posted 23 Aug 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 1
An open letter to Stephen Denning
By Charles Savage
Your wonderful new book, The Reader’s Guide to Storytelling, just arrived. It may be your third book on ‘storytelling’, but I still remember our long conversations in your office at the World Bank a decade ago, when you were just grasping the real power of stories.
In the introduction to your latest work, you explain how you have complemented your ‘rational’ side with the sense of drama and excitement of a context-setting story that focuses and motivates. You offer some wise approaches for leaders at all levels who want to engage, inspire and innovate.
However, might I persuade you to focus your next book on ‘story-asking’? Why? Well, you rightly say, “Good storytelling begins and ends in listening.” I am convinced there is great power in both listening and asking.
You mention ‘Judo leadership’. I therefore wonder whether you’d consider ‘Aikido leadership’ instead. As you know, Aikido means, ‘the way of the binding Ki’. Ki is Japanese for energy as Chi is in Chinese. There is always a lot of energy in a good story, whether shared by the CEO or the union steward. And we all have our own good stories, rich in energy – yet we hardly have an opportunity to tell them.
Your reference to a leader who is interactive and ego-less reminds me of Jim Collins’ Level Five Leadership. Such people are both humble and hard driving. They create an atmosphere where the team doesn’t just tell one another stories, they listen and reflect together, too.
And my point? Instead of just focusing on the ‘telling’, shouldn’t we also consider the ‘asking’?
Envisage Margaret Farnsworth, the CEO of a major international company. When she arrived, some felt intimidated, but she has proved to be remarkably adroit at drawing out the best stories from her VPs and staff.
She often begins meetings with a powerful question, one that is not easy to answer. She then invites staff to envisage ways to address this question. Instead of encouraging them to see who can tell the best story, she actively listens. She knows, thanks to the insights of Michael Polanyi that, “We know more than we can say,” and in her story-asking she weaves the thread of their stories together.
“That’s really interesting, would you please tell me more?” she asks. She encourages staff to connect with their inner feelings and fields of experience. Then she asks, “How does your story relate to what Frank was saying?”
She not only connects with the energy of the stories, but weaves their energy together into an exciting tapestry of new possibilities. When they come out of a meeting, many say, “I never thought we’d get so far... and Margaret hardly said anything.”
When she involves larger groups, she doesn’t use the auditorium. Instead she sets up a room with many small tables, each for four people. She has found that the World Café approach enables these small groups to weave together their own stories and, as they move between tables, they create a web of interconnected stories.
What people feel in this organisation is that they are not only telling stories, but are a story in progress. And so much of this has begun with the simple story-asking questions.
So Stephen, might I implore you to write your next book on story-listening and story-asking?
Charles Savage is a teacher, consultant and author. He is currently working on his next book, which focuses on the transition to the knowledge economy. He can be contacted at