For millennia Stories and the telling of stories have been central to human existence. From the Hunter-Gathers who told of the day’s conquests around the fire, to friends who tell of what they were doing in December 2004 the exact minute the Tsunami hit while on holiday in Phuket, humans have woven their existence together with stories. The value of a story lies in its ability to convey complex multi-layered ideas in a simple and memorable form to culturally diverse audiences.
Today stories seem less important to our functioning as they were in ages gone by. We find that our preferred modes of operating are void of metaphor, symbolism and imagery. Often, when looking at management science employed by managers, the ‘softer’ value of viewing issues through the lens of Story is relegated in preference to good practice and sound expertise that over-complicate simple ideas. We are more comfortable in the realm of Story when it is applied to parenting as children thirst for the quenching that stories provide their imaginations.

There is another arena in which we are comfortable with Story, that of religion and moral education. All major religions started off with a great storyteller who gathered people around and told them stories that conveyed high moral worth in memorable and moving ways capable of being understood at many levels.
Throughout history whole communities have been created and kept alive through and with stories where the health of the community could be measured on the depth and prevalence of storytelling. Their leaders led through the art of telling stories. And these stories were kept alive as every member passed them on. They told stories of their history. They told stories of their future. They told stories of pain, or hope, of life, of death … life was created and kept alive through stories. The very fabric of reality was found in the story.
In these times stories seldom remained linguistic events in nature. Instead, stories moved people to capture and represent the impact that the story had. Through time communities have expressed this impact in symbolic forms that marked their existence. The Native American Indians constructed totem poles that were representations of the community’s identity. Found at the entrance of each community, the totem had carvings that represented significant events and people in the life of the tribe: how the tribe got its name, who had lead the tribe, how many wars had been won, how many wars were lost, what hardships had been endured, what it believed and how the tribe was to be revered.
Ancient communities and civilizations created mediums that conveyed their stories. The ancient Egyptians created a pictorial language of hieroglyphics that communicated their stories. The San used rock paintings to do the very same.
When one considers the wealth of history found in stories one has to wonder how it is that we feel that stories play less of a role in our modern day existence. Is it that the role of stories has changed? Is it that our communities are less dependant on stories for cohesion and functioning? Perhaps it is possible that modern communities have come to rely less on stories as a social fabric. When one however searches deeper into the make-up of modern communities one finds that stories still remain, exist, live and thrive. The difference is that the world has changed, thus changing the very nature of how stories are told, retold and remembered.
Storytelling is an old skill in a new context. The roles of Story and storytelling may not be explicit in our daily interactions, but they are there. Instead of sitting around fires, carving totems or painting on rocky outcrops we now tell and share stories through different mediums. The technological advent in the last few hundred years resulting in photographs, videos, television, websites and radio have changed the manner in which stories are created, told, remembered and shared. Today modern communications technology has replaced sitting around the fire, carving a totem and painting on a rock to keep our social memories in tact.
In comparison to the relative ease with which we store information, communities of old kept information through the telling of stories. When a significant event took place much time was spent on constructing the story, replicating it and ensuring that it stayed alive through its retelling. Think for instance of a monumental hunt where the Hunter conquers one of the largest buffalo. A buffalo that was elusive to all the hunters except this one. The buffalo that, if slaughtered, will keep the family alive longer than any other.
As the hunter drags his kill towards the cave, the family knows they have witnessed a significant moment. Deciding that this moment must be remembered, the hunter gathers all together around the fire, which is a story of its own, and reenacts how he overcame the buffalo with precision of movement, timing and skill. The family would sit in awe. The kids would ask for another telling of the story … and before we know it, a legend is born. As the story turns into a legend, it becomes worthy of spending copious amounts of time turning the story from a verbal retelling into a pictorial reference on the family cave wall. Finding the right coloured pigments might have taken days to prepare. Refining the painting implements adds more time while the legend becomes stronger. And then, pigment and rough twig-brush are committed to the rock face. The legend becomes timeless as the hunters finest moment is depicted in motions.
Today’s hunter pays his small fortune to be lead straight to the lion. He loads his rifle, aims, fires and then hops in his van to take a photo. Upon his return, he shows his family the photo … and becomes a legend, for a short while. Today however, we do not have the burning need to keep information alive as it is done for us through the use of recording mediums.
Because change is incremental, we have hardly noticed this shift. When seen in this light, we see that Story and storytelling is as much a part of our social fabric as it was in years gone by.
The consequence of having the technology to store our modern day stories is that the effort and pain required to keep the story alive has been taken out of the equation. We have lost the vested interest in keeping stories alive by knowing that they are stored instantaneously. In fact, we can store any story we like. We do not have to choose which stories will remain a part of our social fabric. In short, stories are now commoditized where we do not feel the need to index and categorise the significant stories from the insignificant ones. In days gone by the stories that remained alive were the significant stories. Today however, our story culture is cluttered with the excess of story such that the precious nature of Story is desensitized.
Stories have performed various functions within history: to warn; to empower; to gain trust; to inspire; to gather together; to remember; to focus; to laugh and to cry. One additional key element of Story and storytelling is that stories became symbols of significant times. If you like, they were markers for the outgoing generations to pass on to the newer generations as memories of a communities heritage.
With the advances of globalization it is becoming less important to have societal markers that distinguish communities from each other. Again, this global change has aided in the relegation of stories from key functional attribute to an occasional nicety.
In many ways, the markers of old are seen as recreational in today’s terms. If you take painting as an example, we see that painting has moved from a necessity a recreational art form. The challenge today is to rediscover the obvious impact and value of story in organizational contexts. We need to find our markers again.
By Barrie Bramley and Aiden Choles

TomorrowToday Global