Corporate Storytelling: the Wave or Particle Theory?


In school, teachers ask us to imagine that electricity is both a wave passing through material such as a copper wire, and the agitation of static copper particles within the wire.

When it comes to understanding the function of storytelling inside organisations, the same teaching could be helpful. No story works without a narrative, or basic carrier wave holding its sense. But as that story passes from mouth to mouth, so individuals become excited, just like those charged copper particles.

And just like electricity, the dual nature of storytelling can lead to shocks for those who misunderstand its power, or try to short-circuit one or other of its characteristics.

Inside large organisations, there’s plenty of confusion about labels. Is storytelling really a corporate communications discipline? Is it really about people management skills rather than content? Or does it fit best in the leadership development space inhabited by business coaches?

Practitioners who conceive storytelling solely as a corporate communications technique for passing on messages, are missing out on its power to excite and inspire employees.

Practitioners who see storytelling solely as another leadership competency or people management tool, fail to grasp the power of narrative in changing futures.

This certainly gives corporate storytelling professionals more doors to knock on. It also encourages us to define carefully what it is we do best, and in which of the corporate cloakrooms we should hang our hat.

Storytellers can get a hearing in the CorpComms department, with the HR people, and with the Leadership Development and Strategy folks.  Sometimes we must step carefully, as in some companies, professional mistrust and even outright antagonism exists between these different corporate functions.

But we can’t go far wrong in remembering corporate storytelling (sometimes known as organisational storytelling) serves twin functions as a communications discipline and a leadership method. Practitioners develop both hard and soft skills, and so training programs are tailored to both.

As an initial step, managers acquire experience in translating formal company information (strategic goals, challenges or market insights) into simple messages and stories that are easy to understand, easy to retain and above all relevant to the lives of employees and teams. Storytelling is a way of presenting company information to groups in lively, engaging ways that everyone can understand.

Next comes the second and more powerful step to storytelling. Its real power lies as much in the creation of emotional bonds with listeners, as with knowledge transfer. The practise of storytelling will raise the ability of managers to motivate employees and teams. In a world where employee satisfaction is rapidly taking the old place of engagement, understanding your boss and feeling he/she understands you, has real value in the HR-based world of people management.

Above all, stories are the best way to transmit values that, if distributed as a “formal Company values and vision statement” can seem dry, lifeless, and forgettable if remote from employees’ daily work – however long a task force has spent crafting them.

Managers increase their leadership profile by creating authentic links with their listeners. They do this by developing successful stories that draw on examples, personal anecdotes, or lateral associations that help listeners intuitively “make sense” of difficult ideas.

So instead of simply passing along or repeating management information, managers must first “make sense for themselves” of everything they present as a story to their teams. This “sensemaking” creates authenticity which in turn earns trust. In this respect, successful storytelling uses cognitive pathways similar to effective coaching techniques.

Storytelling is about stimulating the imagination to conceive other outcomes, other possibilities involving growth or change that might previously have seemed blocked. The changed mind-set is “we can do it here.”

The storyteller may focus not so much on the goals at hand, but how things will look once today’s goals have been achieved. This works in a similar fashion to the technique known as Appreciative Inquiry.

By presenting new perspectives or “alternative versions of the future”, a storyteller can encourage people to imagine bolder outcomes. Teams can get excited not just about today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s. The feedback that a really good storyteller gets from his audience can sound like an actors’ improvisation session.

The ability of managers to shape opinions and inspire changes in team behaviour – all through the agency of effective storytelling – is a desirable leadership attribute.

So storytelling develops the emotional intelligence of practitioners, but also strengthens culture inside the business unit. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that internal communications is today seen more and more of an HR discipline, rather than a branch of CorpComms.

For all these reasons, HR professionals would do well not to close the door on storytellers, or to wrongly typecast our discipline as typical of the externally-facing corporate communications function.

Of course, storytelling does help transfer vital information about the company’s development and processes in engaging ways, so the company gets win-win benefits.

Method: From Standard to Story

Effective communication and emotional authenticity are leadership skills innate to a lucky few. But with courage and some dedication, they are available to all through learning and practise. These are transferrable skills.

Changing minds and winning hearts through effective story is a fine goal or any leader. But no storyteller ever created new possibilities without first mastering the basics of communication.

For those raised in an MBA culture of “the facts speak for themselves” or the empirical engineering world where decisions are based on spreadsheet logic not emotion, there is generally a road to travel in terms of basic communication skills.

Furthermore, operational line managers are often less resistant to picking up “soft skills” when these are bundled together with more empirical, fact-based activity. Let’s be frank; classroom-based knowledge management or leadership training as a purely abstract process can generate eye-rolling and foot-dragging among busy managers in engineering–led cultures.

So, before we can unlock the “leadership step,” we must work on the “effective communication step.” This involves some attributes that even quite senior managers may take for granted, especially in hierarchical institutions or workplace cultures where power-distance is traditionally high. These include “showing up with the whole self,” “active listening,” and “experiencing the other.”

It would be a mistake to think storytelling takes place only on a conference stage or the intranet TV broadcast. The most effective communication will take place informally, in small group conversations, in performance appraisals, during travel etc.

Effective storytellers are used to receiving as much as transmitting, and are courageous about revealing themselves. They modestly acknowledge they don’t know the absolute truth. And a good storyteller knows that most of the time, he’s simply retelling a new version of a classic tale – with a business façade.

Above all, he knows that listeners have already been programmed since childhood with the plots and outcomes of great archetypal stories. Listeners have an unconscious expectation of how each story type should turn out – and they want to arrive at a satisfying, fully resolved conclusion. Some readers may have followed my earlier series of posts about the Seven Basic Plots, recently concluded with an analysis of entrepreneurship.

In business as in life-stories, barriers to change are largely self-created. Overcoming such obstacles to reach a new stage of evolution or personal development is the business of story – and the business of business too. Encouraging teams to dig deep for hidden strengths within themselves, to glimpse their work in more fulfilling, perhaps even heroic terms, is the leader’s application of story principles to business challenges.

In technical terms, we need to test and as necessary develop the skill of simplifying and synthesizing messages into memorable ‘informative gifts’ backed by relevant examples or case studies that resonate personally because they are lived, not abstract.

The storytelling programme starts with a focus on verbal and non-verbal communications skills, and the selection of anecdotes to enrich meaning and create empathy. We use feedback, discussion and analysis to show what worked, and what didn’t.

The next step is to assess the ability of delegates to translate “standards into stories.” At some stage, just about every manager has to use the Balanced ScoreCard to assess standards and achievements with teams. Leaders need to communicate multiple levels of BSC results: Company wide, divisionally, for teams and units.

The BSC has its “hard” side for fitness, finance and client relations, where examples tend to be more formal. Storytelling skills are especially relevant for the “soft” side of the BSC disc — culture, societal contribution, evolution. These aspects of BSC need to be told in ways that are relevant and meaningful, rather than jargon-based.

We then progress to practising the telling of more ambitious stories of transformation. The objective is always to help managers communicate the message of “making more possible” to employees. The primary task is always to mobilise energy here and now.

Outcomes: Stories for Higher Leadership

In terms of developing leadership styles, the storytelling principle is designed to expose managers to more intuitive approaches. These are associated with the higher consciousness levels described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its subsequent evolution by the knowledge management profession, notably the Barrett Seven Levels of Consciousness model from the Values Centre.

Much daily management activity takes place at the three levels occupying the bottom of the pyramid: managing adversity or crisis; taking control; pursuing profit in Level One. Next up in Level Two managers must also develop relationships that support corporate needs – communicating with suppliers and employees. Level Three addresses productivity, best practice and self-esteem through quality.

So far, managers have little need of stories or inspiration to deliver effective results and meet targets. A staff memo will do the job. But reaching and going past the Transformation stage at Level Four calls for a new recipe. The four levels at the top end of the hierarchy of leadership competencies, call for strengthened interpersonal approach where storytelling comes into its own as a management tool.

To build teams and achieve continuous renewal by promoting learning and innovation, the Level Four manager needs to become an influencer, not a driver.  At Level Five, the manager must adopt the role of inspirer or integrator in order to nurture a positive team culture and ensure true sharing of vision and values.

Higher still, the Level Six manager becomes a mentor or partner, fostering alliances in the community, focused on employee fulfilment, and active in environmental stewardship. Finally, the “good-to-great” manager’s Level Seven leadership style builds in the concept of service, and long-term perspectives we associate with wisdom.

All these “higher” management functions are based upon personal example and a “teach by doing and telling” function. Storytelling cannot provide the functions or competencies themselves. But it does provide the managers informal teaching style to show and tell how those competencies are exercised in the workplace.

This explains why storytelling is a hybrid discipline whose practitioners may find themselves hanging their hats in multiple cloakrooms.

It is of the CorpComms world and is a way to simplify, filter and channel information in memorable ways that actually stick.

It is of the HR world and serves as a management tool to increase employee satisfaction (or employee engagement, for those still measuring it) and workers’ sense of being “on the bus”.

It is of the leadership world and provides executives with the means to bring their “whole selves” to bear in inspiring others and creating new shared futures.

In the end, of course, storytelling is a primal force, like electricity. It can bring light, power – and some much needed shocks to the system.

Richard House

Finding our Seven Archetypal Stories: The Entrepreneur and Journey’s End.


The final article in this series brings to completion a journey during which we have examined the effect on all our lives of the seven great archetypal stories recurring through literature, folk tales and the classics.

We’ve seen how the experience of individual heroes and heroines in literature affects our collective consciousness by shaping the destiny of nations, the performance of great companies, and the behaviour of sportsmen and celebrities. You can find the previous posts analysing contemporary events and corporate leadership issues, using as a starting-point the key principles behind Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.

Now it’s time to see how we, as ordinary individuals, are also driven by these primordial story patterns. With its triumphs and disasters, our own life story is unique to each of us.

Yet these very stories show us that something more than a random distribution of luck will determine which lives are crowned with success and fulfilment. It’s a commonplace that some people are luckier than others. Perhaps that just means they’re better able to understand the narrative in which they find themselves, manufacturing credibility and crafting their own “happy ending.” Others are condemned to repeat their narrative. We call people with unresolved stories “unlucky.”

To illustrate the role the Seven Archetypal Stories play in the lives of ordinary people I want to explore the adventurous world of the small businessman/woman or entrepreneur. There is perhaps no other walk of life where individual character and the ability to decipher which story we are living through, drives the outcomes so completely.

From start-up to sell-out, the entrepreneurial experience of today has perhaps more affinities with man’s heroic myths and journeys, his comedies and tragedies, than any other walk of life. If Homer were alive today, he might be a VC. In place of the Trojan Wars we would hear about Silicon Valley.

At the outset, the small businessman has nothing else but his own story to tell and to sell. How high can he/she fly?  So join me in seeing where he/she takes that adventure, and how his ability to spin that tale makes or breaks his luck.

And there’s a postscript which trails the next series of posts, which will explore Narrativity.

The Businessman’s Treasure Map: The Odysseus-Entrepreneur, the Sugar-Giant, and the Castaway.

When television producers wish to explain business and the dramas facing entrepreneurs to a mass audience, they use fairy tales.

In The Apprentice, the world of make-believe is close below the surface. Candidates who would learn the secrets of the Sorcerer  (Donald Trump or his British counterpart Sir Alan Sugar in the BBC version) must prove their worth by showing they can help him collect riches from the Treasure Cave. And just like the young hero Aladdin, they must possess sufficient knowledge to find but not hand over the lamp and its all-powerful genie, indicating they could one day outsmart this dark father-figure at his own money-game.

Likewise, those would-be entrepreneurs who climb the winding stairs to The Dragon’s Den in the successful BBC business series, are doing more than simply pitching new business ideas to a fractious panel of ill-tempered and greedy venture capitalists. Like the hero of Jack and the Beanstalk, each must “steal” golden treasures from the Giant’s den while he sleeps, by making business presentations artful enough to secure cash investments in exchange for little more than a story. Just as Jack finds sacks of gold in the Giant’s castle, so the BBC “Dragons” lounge in their chairs before offensively large piles of banknotes.

Charming money from these ill-tempered “Dragons” is usually achieved with the help of the giant’s wife (sympathetically played by Deborah Meaden, the lead female panellist). It’s at least implicit that, having secured a golden investment, the plucky hero-entrepreneur will contrive to chop down the Beanstalk and gain liberty from his tiresome new business partner.

While the US version of The Apprentice has veered into baroque self-parody by adding celebrity (Def Leppard, La Toya and David Cassidy) and charitable fund-raising to the mix, the British version of plot has morphed from Aladdin to copy Jack and the Beanstalk. Now, the big prize is no longer a a job working for the wicked Sorcerer. Instead it’s a passive investment by the Giant (Sugar), who allows the plucky hero to steal his gold. Sugar also has a “wife” (executive assistant Karren Brady) who helps the winning entrepreneur to make off with the gold. Helicopter shots, high-rise buildings and frequent use of the staircase motif make clear that the Sugar-Giant’s world of big business is “up in the sky.”

The massive success of each TV series (the UK models are now into 7th and 9th series respectively while Trump is on series five) has nothing to do with business. We are watching a latterday version of the Rags to Riches played out before us.  In The Apprentice there is no meaningful business activity: the competitive assignments are really a series of character tests designed to separate contenders possessed of the “light” attributes of loyalty, honesty, gallantry, charity and clear-sightedness, from the “dark” proponents of egotism, greed, bitching and back-stabbing.

These shows, which fulfil the function of a medieval joust, are all about character driving the result. We want Jack, or Aladdin to possess a treasure, to overcome the dark forces, and to find his princess.

And so it is in the real world of small business. Here, we relive the archetypal world of our great stories with frightening intensity. For the businessman is his story. At networking events, in business clubs, at live demos, at accelerator show’n’tells, at casual encounters, or in the elevator, at the bank, we have just a few seconds to compress our narrative into a snippet so engaging that, just like Scheherazade, our powerful business contact (the VC investor doubling as the King of Persia) will say: “You won’t die tonight. Come and see me tomorrow. I want to know more.”

Because the cycle of a small business follows the pattern of a human life, so its key steps and transformative dramas can be traced using the familiar language of our great stories. We experience a tiny fragment of the universal plot of self-realisation: the evolution from immaturity towards enlightenment – passing through temptation, danger, near-dissolution and redeeming acts of love that elevate the spirit to a higher plane. What began as a solo voyage before long becomes a community beyond our own identity.

I have started four small businesses in 13 years. So some of the pattern I’ll describe is inevitably the fruit of my own experience (including spills and thrills). For those working in Silicon Valley and lately, in London’s “Silicon Roundabout,” the same general principles are valid.

Quite soon after their own “start-up” (which we also call birth), very young children have partially separated their own identity from that of the mother-figure. They want to explore a world fraught with perils. So it is that Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf. In the nick of time a wood-cutter saves the heroine, who returns safely to her mother. Likewise Goldilocks, after making free in the mysterious home of the three bears, returns home to mother.

Arguably the most primal of all stories, Overcoming the Monster is experienced internally by every would-be entrepreneur contemplating leaving the safety of his or her fixed job to start out alone. Perhaps the Monster is an oppressive workplace or mean-spirited boss. But more often the Monster is fear itself. “Without a salary, can I support my family, make the mortgage payments? Am I worthy?  Am I strong enough?”

In those first days we feel washed up on a desert island. Just like Tom Hanks in the film Castaway, we use fragments of our “old” lives to help us survive. On first leaving home for his great adventure, every entrepreneur has faced doubts as well as debts. Quite soon, of course, as the world opens up and our early confidence builds, these concerns seem laughable (often dangerously so as we begin to feel invincible.)

In a dreamlike state we are carried forward from the familiar home into a world where our new strengths and skills seem able provide us with everything. We enter the ambitious world of Rags to Riches. Just as the unnoticed young squire Arthur manages to pull the Sword from the Stone, or Clark Kent transforms himself from the weedy journalist into Superman, so our powers are revealed. Our presentations are original! Clients believe in us! We are making sales! Angel investors are calling! There is money in the bank!

Business books frequently present the start of a new business as an undertaking requiring superhuman force, advanced  mathematical skills and steely discipline. In fact, most businessmen at least partially attuned to their subconscious, will experience phases of dreamlike, almost effortless progress where amazing coincidences drive us forward. We call this “luck.” Suddenly, golden “presents” are showered, a patron favours our service, or we emerge victorious from a succession of challenges.

Conversely, there are moments when simply everything is going against us. Could there be a conspiracy afoot to ruin us, similar to that of the 1983 movie Trading Places? There, the Eddie Murphy character is made to experience wild see-saws of fortune simply to satisfy a cynical bet. Sometimes, we feel like climbers facing a glass-like wall, with no single hand-hold. Some evil force in against us.

Of course, dark figures continue to beset the young business (the bank, tax payments, cynical former colleagues). But along the way we encounter mysterious helpers who believe in us despite the world’s cynicism. These helpers – Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Dick Whittington’s Cat, King Arthur’s Merlin or of course Aladdin’s Genie  – ensure our young business can pass safely over the first great crisis. (Most commonly, an older relative or family friend may support ailing cash-flow, or make a crucial business introduction that yields sales.)

Whatever the instance, it becomes increasingly clear that our ability to grow the business is not so much due to external factors as our own perseverance and purity of heart. As the business grows, dubious offers will be made, attempts to incorporate our energy into the plans of others less well-intentioned. We may glimpse temptation in the wing-mirror. Like Aladdin, we must go down into the Treasure Cave at the Sorcerer’s behest — yet reject the temptation of easy riches. Like Jason distracting the dragon to seize the Golden Fleece, our motive must be pure. Each of the fully-resolved Rags to Riches stories makes clear that money itself is not the final prize. It is to “inherit the kingdom” or “win the hand of the princess” by embracing the “light” side of ourselves.

Ask any even moderately successful entrepreneur what drives him (or her) forward and you’ll discover it has nothing to do with money. Pretty soon they will have more money than time available to spend it, and anyway they’ll end up giving most of it away. So money itself is a placeholder for something else: it’s a yardstick of progress toward self-actualisation. Money is one effective way of showing how well we are progressing in the next of life’s great story-patterns: The Quest.

Every new group of partners toasting future success with a freshly-signed business agreement before them believes they are unique. Not so: they are simply companions on another well-travelled path we call the Quest. Just as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, every young Jim starts with a map to guide him. But the map is encoded, or worse than useless if it leads us to new perils. That’s also true of our first Business Plan (always a flimsy and misleading fiction).

Just like Luke Skywalker languishing on a distant planet in Star Wars, or Frodo the Hobbit at home in the Shire in Lord of the Rings, every entrepreneur hears a call to action. Life at home has become intolerable, and with the aid of some spiritual guidance, we learn of a long and perilous journey that must be undertaken. Together with a band of companions who join us along the way, we journey forth on our own business mini-epic. We may have to journey through a dark “underworld” of debt, and engage the help of “wise old men” (business counsellors). Ogres (VAT officers, tax accountants, employee litigation) will surely threaten us.

What’s clear is that not all companions will survive. Eleven of the twelve shiploads accompanying Odysseus fall prey to cannibal giants, while the remainder of his men are lost to the Sirens. He faces the final challenge – routing the suitors of Penelope in his home island of Ithaca – all alone. So too in Lord of the Rings, the Companionship of the Ring supporting Frodo has broken down by the time he reaches Mordor.

The partnerships that do survive the Quest seem to be based upon a mysterious union of male and female forces, such as the pairing of Will and Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Together they achieve a soaring act of redemption and grace of planetary significance that rewrites Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. It’s no coincidence that each story in the Indiana Jones trilogy includes a feisty female sidekick, who makes the hero complete. In Pretty Woman, the Richard Gere character only becomes a “good” entrepreneur when he teams up with a hooker (Julia Roberts).

The problem with partnerships in business at an early stage of individuation, of course, is that each director (or Quest companion) is living his or her own story at a time when the company doesn’t yet have a clear “shared story” or crusade around which to coalesce. Some members may embark on different journeys, after frustrated attempts to turn the narrative “their” way. This causes many a business break-up.

Which is why in our own case in our business, we have worked to ensure relationships between directors are based upon chosen and agreed values which lie inside the circle of our personalities. “Living the values,” not interpersonal dynamics, determines our commitment to the business.

Every fulfilled Quest ends at home. What entrepreneur has not proudly come back to show the fruits of his heroic labour to a mother, a wife, a partner, an early believer? To go forth boldly is good. But then to return safely with wisdom and treasure intact, is to live the hugely satisfying trope of Voyage and Return.

Like Robinson Crusoe’s safe homecoming after extraordinary adventures, with his hard-won self-knowledge, the entrepreneur who makes it to safe harbour partakes of a higher level of spiritual development. He may have set forth, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, as a carefree, selfish young wanderer. But he returns a complete man. In this latter case, the expiation of the killing of the albatross, can only be achieved through a spontaneous gesture of love for the most reviled of earth’s creatures. The Mariner’s sentence is to teach humility to the wedding-guest.

So it is that entrepreneurs who have completed the cycle of “bringing home the treasure” or “inheriting the kingdom,” are frequently found in business schools as guides and mentors. They want now to give back, not to take more out. So it is that in The Color of Money (Sequel to The Hustler) Paul Newman’s older character is mentor to the young Tom Cruise. Angel investors are second stage entrepreneurs who continue to “live  the dream” through  the experience of younger adventurers.

Of course we know the final stage of the business cycle – the trade sale, IPO, or strategic alliance with venture capitalists – is fraught with danger. ‘Dark rivals’ in the shape of scheming corporate lawyers, tricky investment bankers and VC investors, will challenge the hero for his hard-won stake. Perhaps a ‘dark father figure’ in the shape of an original angel investor will create opposition. The dark ‘witch queen’ (frequently a litigious ex-wife) may seek an unjustly large share of the treasure. At each stage, the contractual ‘earn-out’ can be imperilled, with hero figuratively imprisoned in ‘golden handcuffs’ for an age before he at last can be free – to start all over again if he is a committed serial entrepreneur.

So much for the basic trajectory of our entrepreneur-hero’s journey, the so-called ‘plot structure.’ These first four stories describe the “making” of the company. But just as important is the evolution of character. The final three Story Archetypes are devoted to the development of the community and the making of a culture.  This is where leadership kicks in – and many entrepreneurs kick off.

For although the journey begins as one of individuation or self-actualisation, quite soon every entrepreneur realises the importance of starting a business is not about himself. Precisely the opposite. The whole significance of running a business is that we have created something bigger than, and distinct from, our own personality. The business works on while we sleep, when we go on vacation, when we die. We have built a community bigger than ourselves which can live on, just like a painting or a work of literature. It is our own tiny piece of quasi-immortality.

Just how we define and then live by the rules of this community or “little kingdom” also known as a growing, sustainable business, is the proper subject of Comedy.

It’s a paradox that, after years of lonely struggle and the huge exercise of willpower needed to build a business, what the entrepreneur needs to do next is relax. At this point he’s managing people, no longer giving substance to his original idea.

So the single biggest threat to any company is the egotism of the leader and his unwillingness to delegate power to a new generation. Letting go, and ensuring happiness in the community, are the hardest lessons a self-made entrepreneur must learn.

What can Comedy teach the entrepreneur? On stage or screen, every successful comedy creates order from disorder, harmony from competing and chaotic demands. Much like a day at the office. What we learn from Comedy is that harmonious and loving union between hero and heroine is no more, or no less essential than the happiness of every single member of our little social order. Prince and Princess, Shepherd and Shepherdesses, must all unite to ensure a proper “happy ending.” Likewise, it matters little how much fun the directors are having, if just one unhappy secretary at the water-cooler spreads doom in the office.

In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, the insane jealousy between Leontes, the CEO-king of Sicilia, and his fellow-director Polixenes (visiting king of Bohemia), sparks a titanic bout of dysfunctional behaviour among stakeholders that would defy the best-trained executive coach or Human Resources professional. Only by working through a “management succession story” of the young lovers Perdita and Florizel, do we reach a happy ending.

From the Magic Flute to Mrs Doubtfire, successful comedy depends on the hero embracing his sensitive, female side and rejecting the tyrannical, egocentric masculine persona. In the Pursuit of Happyness, the Will Smith persona is both father, mother, and businessman.

If Comedy shows the entrepreneur how to successfully manage his community, then Tragedy shows the hero being dragged down fatally by the power of the dark side, as egotism and tyrannical behaviour cut him off from salvation and he becomes too weak to wrest control of the situation. There are few financial bankruptcies that have not been preceded by their moral equivalent. Once John deLorean began dealing drugs in a desperate 1981 attempt to salvage his sports car company, the outcome was inevitable.

What businessman has not been forced to “put on a brave face”, as events threaten to spiral out of control? In Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray, the hero’s portrait becomes a parody of the dysfunctional entrepreneur – he is “all front,” while the horrors accumulate behind the mask. Wilde’s story is an object lesson in “perfect PR” run amok. Likewise, the “dark self” that takes possession of Natalie Portman’s heroine of Black Swan, points toward the self-destructiveness and paranoia that can dominate even level-headed entrepreneurs.

Tragedy gives us vital clues as to how the flaw of hubris operates in the workplace, inverting values and alienating entrepreneurs from humanity as they single-mindedly pursue dangerous obsessions. Take the case of a fatal rift between three directors of a world-beating multinational. One has become infatuated with a private investment project – let’s call it Cleopatra – into which he’s pouring time, resources end emotional commitment. This director – let’s call him Mark Antony – won’t show up at board meetings, and wants to spin off his Cleopatra project as a private fiefdom in defiance of his loyalty to other directors (Octavian and Marcus Lepidus) of the multinational – let’s call it ancient Rome.

Shakespeare’s  Anthony and Cleopatra summarises every internal company feud sparked by egotistical, lazy behaviour. Likewise, The Merchant of Venice is an object-lesson  about what happens when entrepreneurs insist upon unenforceable contracts.

Retirement is anathema to the entrepreneur. He cannot give up, while mind and body still have force. After his last company is sold (or has failed), he may become a teacher, or an investor. But chances are, he will keep starting over with new ventures. Because he must continually reach out for something new, he lives the last and most compelling of our archetypal story patterns; that of Rebirth.

Every new venture starts with the promise that this time, everything will be different, less precarious, less vulnerable. Thanks to the seed capital from the last venture, the start-up will be more comfortable. Hard-won experience means that old mistakes won’t be repeated.

And yet, as Tolstoy might have written in Anna Karenina, “Established businesses are all happy, all alike; every new business is unhappy in its own way.” How can we distinguish genuine Rebirth from repeated rotations on the Karmic wheel?

The entrepreneur experiences Rebirth – the most complex of the Seven Story Archetypes – when an act of love or generosity lifts the dark spell and breaks through the businessman’s egotistical, masculine persona. In Disney’s Lion King, the young lion only abandons his dreamlike flight into the forest and takes up his responsibilities when awakened by his female counterpart.

Like Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, or Frodo of Lord of the Rings once his Ring Quest is fulfilled, a whole new life is offered. No wonder, then, that so many entrepreneurs end up giving all their money away – and then starting over.

In a world where the space for adventure grows ever smaller, the life of the entrepreneur provides one of the last great untamed places to live one’s own exciting and fulfilling story with all the richness of a complete narrative.

Epilogue: From Storytelling to Narrativity.

Through this series we have explored how this great cycle of Seven Stories has inspired our creative, cultural and artistic heritage from our earliest days, both as individuals and as peoples. The function of all art derived from these tales is to show us “how the world works,” because we can take these stories and apply them to our own lives. Or rather, we receive confirmation at the deepest psychological levels that our lives move according to reassuring and ancient patterns.

Next, I want to look at how the other ‘non-artistic’ disciplines mankind uses to explain “how the world works,” can also been seen as exercises in mass opinion-formation.  What if social sciences that we’re taught to believe are both empirical and objective, are really just slick exercises in storytelling? Perhaps our entire conception of both history and political economy is nothing more than a subjective construct. What if historians have always been writing fiction? What if economists have no firmer grasp on “reality” than poets or rappers?

Almost a century ago, modernist historians began showing us how the narrative of colonial exploitation had been written by the conquerors. There followed a “story of the colonized,” which became Cold War, then East-West, then North-South studies. In the end all this modernist analysis was no truer a version of the way the world really works, than what had preceded it.

Then came Post-Modernism, based on the concept that every event is surrounded by multiple discourses. Philosophers like Foucault showed how narrative defines the very relative truths we accept. In the language of modern journalism, there is “less substance than spin.” Foucault, RD Laing and Wilhelm Reich lifted the veil on the rules that society uses to decide which of the mad are sane, and which of the sane are mad. And Joseph Heller wrote all about it in Catch-22.

This lies behind the emerging discipline of “Narrativity,” which is linked to the Storytelling we’ve been examining. To get to the roots of Narrativity, I next want to examine in detail the work of the great American historian Hayden White through his 1973 masterwork, Metahistory.

Just as Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots served as the springboard for us to analyse the limited number of stories driving human consciousness, so White’s book identifies four dominant approaches used by historians to make sense of events and to create the “official version” of our times. He shows how historians unconsciously follow very distinct scripts when they weave together storylines, arguments and ideological positions to create the “historical facts” we study in school and accept as “gospel truth”.

In the next series of posts in coming months, I’ll be introducing Metahistory and its importance for students of Narrativity. Then I will be looking at each of White’s four “Modes of Emplotment” used by historians. They are: Romantic; Tragic; Comic; and Satirical.  From these labels, you can already tell that the worlds of Seven Basic Plots and Metahistory are closely interlinked.

In fact, Metahistory provides just as compelling a conceptual grid or matrix for analyzing “the way the world works” as Marxism was once (so deceptively) thought to offer. Like Booker, White was influenced by Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic whose 1957 book Anatomy of Criticism delivered a conceptual framework showing how literature works by reinterpreting myth.

Just like I’ve tried to do with The Seven Basic Plots, you can also take the basic learnings of  Frye’s or White’s work and use them to show how modern history, economics and political thinking are every bit as “made up” as the stories that Booker analyses in his study. So Narrativity is  the “public affairs”  branch of Storytelling.

My objective in all this is very simple. We’re seeking a much deeper understanding of the opinion formation process and its links to the power around us. It’s a fiction to suppose that only advertising, PR, lobbyists and pollsters work in this field and that the ordinary person can tell when he’s being “sold” something to believe in. Opinion formation is the basis of our society and pervades everything.

Nowadays, people talk about “Soft Power,” which is the way enlightened leaders and opinion formers project policies that benefit people around the world. Soft Power agents use public diplomacy, dialogue, transparency. Their currency is ideals and values. Soft Power uses constructive narratives to guide people.

By contrast, “Hard Power” works with cluster bombs, pilotless drones, redacted cables, defamation suits, cease and desist injunctions, hostile press releases, publicists, planted stories, negative briefings, phone hacking, you name it.

Personally, I want to know when and why my emotions are being exploited and exactly how my behaviour is shaped by somebody else’s storytelling. I want to have the analytical tools to ascertain if the narrative being pushed is all about Hard or Soft Power. I want to look right through the storyteller and know what’s behind him.

And I freely admit, I want to use stories myself to change other people’s opinions, and to share the secret of how to do this with others.

Thanks for travelling this far with me and I hope you’ll join me for the next series!

Richard House

Further Searching for our Seven Archetypal Stories: Why Celebrity Matters


Our fascination with the lives of celebrities isn’t just a simple matter of yearning to be like them …. it’s because the exposure of their lives in high definition fulfils a fundamental need to see certain stories played out. This post is all about celebrity stories and what we learn from them.

The great effort we invest in studying the lives of celebrities through the mass media, and the prurient pleasure we derive from their dramas or sufferings, indicates their huge importance to our society. A visiting alien might consider them our true rulers.

Celebrities themselves may not often be business people. But they’re undoubtedly big business. And they’re thought leaders and shapers of fashion or opinion. Their actions have enormous economic consequences. But what can these people have to do with archetypes that drive behaviour?

Previous posts in this series have presented the concept of Seven Basic Stories or plots that permeate all world literature and drive our deeper conduct, consciously or unconsciously. The source is The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker.

I’ve then explored each of these plots in the context not just of art, but also in the daily life of nations, organisations and above all of companies and their top executives. In Part One, we studied national narrative. In Part Two, we looked at the cost of the business world’s fixation with Tragedy. Part Three was about Comedy. Part Four looked at  business Rebirth.

To make the link between collective or corporate stories and our own very personal narratives (subject of the next article), I’ll examine three types of
celebrity, occupying a halfway position between public corporations and the private person.

These are: artists, sportsmen and criminals.

Up to now we’ve looked at stories that play out fully to the end. But not all stories have a “happy ending” in real life. As anyone who’s ever walked out of a theatre performance or cinema screening knows, an incomplete story is hugely frustrating. If the bedtime story doesn’t have the right ending, children won’t sleep.

Yet the incomplete or frustrated playing-out of some of our Seven Basic Plots is precisely what provides the bulk of what we know as “celebrity drama.” So we’ve created this class of highly-paid global professionals whose job is to play out before our very eyes the thrills and spills of “broken stories.”

In each case I’ll contend that the “day job” – recording albums, beating records and scoring knock-outs, or doing time in jail – is no more important than the public living-out their stories. Because it tells us all about ourselves, celebrity matters.

Broken Stories that Possess us: The Downfall of  Artists, Sportsmen, and Criminals.

The premature death of British singer Amy Winehouse in July 2011 was both a tragedy and a predestined event: nobody who knew her well expected any other outcome.

She joins the “27 Club” — a roll-call of charismatic popular artists who all died before the age of 28. They include Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Beyond noting the unhappy coincidence, no commentator has satisfactorily explained why contemporary artists are drawn to self-destruction.

In tearful interviews, singers in the Winehouse backing group and family members explained that Amy was trapped by fame, driven into a life that wasn’t hers. She was living another story, and darkness overwhelmed her.

The cult of eternal youth is only part of this story. Just like Greek heroes, we know that those whom the Gods love, must die young. Laurence Binyon’s Ode to Remembrance for the World War I dead is also a tribute to fallen rockers like Amy Winehouse: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Drugs may have been the agent – but they’re not the underlying reason. Something deeper goes on whenever fame transports performers to a landscape beyond the consciousness of ordinary mortals. To a place from which return seems impossible.

Exactly what is it that rock musicians do that seemingly makes their chosen profession more dangerous than that of a Formula One racing driver? Joni Mitchell (thankfully a survivor), came closest to describing the singer’s job (and the temptation to abandon it) in her 1974 song Free Man in Paris:

You know I’d go back there tomorrow/ But for the work I’ve taken on/Stoking the star-maker machinery/Behind the popular song.

The dangerous nature of this “star-maker machinery” is hardly new. The fact is that self-destruction has lain close to the heart of the Romantic experience for over two centuries. Just like the “27 Club”, a common destiny of insanity, suicide or premature death binds together painters such as Van Gogh, Samuel Palmer, or Richard Dadd; the poets Percy Shelley, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Chatterton; the composer Schumann; the philosopher Nietzsche.

Closer to our times, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry. Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. The list goes on and on.

It’s a commonplace that artists must travel to places the rest of us cannot reach: from these journeys they transmit insights, horrors and experiences that reach closer to the heart of the human condition. They act as ambassadors on our behalf. No wonder Yoko Ono was widely vilified for the fact that John Lennon chose to become a house-husband, baking, rather than earning the family’s bread. We don’t expect our artists to be domesticated.

In fact, so powerful is the need for a complex and potentially self-destructive “back story” that even would-be artists sporting the blank slate that comes with pre-celebrity existence, also need to have one. Contenders for TV talent shows like “X Factor,” “America’s Got Talent” and others, need a bit of angst. Consider the case of Susan Boyle, the singer who shot from non-enity to celebrity and (virtually) back again in less time than it takes to grow a crop of tomatoes.

Properly lived, these artistic journeys into the imaginative world of dreams or parallel reality form the basis of one of the most powerful archetypal story patterns or tropes – that of Voyage and Return.

This plot exists at almost every step in the history of storytelling. In children’s stories, Peter Rabbit’s journey into Mr McGregor’s garden in the work of Beatrix Potter, or the adventure of the Darling children in Never Never Land in Peter Pan. (No coincidence here that Michael Jackson also got lost inside this same J.M. Barrie story).

In Classical literature, we have both the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Both Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels explore the same theme. From Jules Verne and HG Wells onwards, modern science fiction uses this trope as its central plot engine.

In every classic version of Voyage and Return, the hero returns to his starting point, wiser, older, and changed. But he (or she) is demonstrably back in the same place where he began: the rabbit burrow, the Darling family home, Ithaca, the planet’s surface, today. Sometimes – like Gulliver – upon return to the “normal” world they cannot wait to get back to their extraordinary exploring again.

But there is a hugely important variant of this trope we might call “Voyage Without Return.” In this variant, darkness overwhelms our hero. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Marlon Brando’s version of this character in Apocalypse Now; both Tamburlaine and Faustus in Marlowe’s plays. Randle McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. These are the folks who never come back.

The common root of all “creative journeys of the soul” that bring doom and a violent end is that of Orpheus, the first of all poets and musicians.

Most of us know that in order to bring back his beloved Eurydice, Orpheus travelled down to the underworld and secured an agreement that she would live again if he could complete the return to the upper world without looking back to see if she was always behind him.

What’s less well-known is that after Eurydice was dragged down by Hades for a second time (because her beloved looked back), Orpheus wandered the earth as an inconsolable poet. Eventually he was torn to pieces by Maenads or female followers of Dionysus, in a drunken frenzy. The sexual ambivalence of Orpheus, his on-off relationship with alcohol, his circle of crazed but deadly groupies, his grisly end, make him the original “27 Club” member, as well as inspiration for the modernist and surreal tradition via Jean Cocteau’s ground-breaking 1950 film Orphee.

So thanks to her troubled life and early death (whatever the explanation for it), Amy Winehouse not only went “posthumous platinum,” but launched an ocean of magazine articles. She embodied one of the most powerfully destructive variants of the Voyage and Return story archetype – the “Journey Without Return” of youthful death.

We like our sportsmen to fail. Or rather, we like them to stumble as the tangle of their personal lives threatens the purity of their physical prowess. Sometimes they recover. Sometimes the wound is fatal.

Sporting heroes occupy a hugely important place in our lives: it is upon them that we project our desires and wish-fulfillment, for they have demonstrably used their strength and self-discipline to escape our common destiny as minor cogs in the machine trapping us. By strength of arm and fleetness of foot they have won freedom and huge wealth.

Yet we continually set them up for failure. It happens too often to be a coincidence: and it almost always happens off the pitch, the track or the court. Sex, violence, performance-enhancing drugs. Sometimes it’s naivete in politics.

In each case here’s a discernible pattern. A sporting star achieves extraordinary prominence – then goes right off the rails for reasons unconnected with sport. A long, slow process of rehabilitation then begins, in which the hero must regain our collective trust.

Consider the downfall of Tiger Woods after a string of sexual alliances that therapists explained as a show of exaggerated risk-taking by an overly-confident sports professional. Two years and a string of humble-pie confessions after his 2009 downfall, Tiger is still stuck deep in the bottomless bunker marked “dishonoured sportsmen.”

Then there’s the 1992 conviction for rape of boxer Mike Tyson. After being released from prison in 1995, Tyson engaged in a series of comeback fights, only to be stripped of the WBC title and eventually disqualified for biting off an opponent’s ear. By 2003 Tyson – who had earned over $300 million during his career – was bankrupt.

By contrast the greatest boxer Mohammed Ali, survived his 1967 banning and conviction (for refusing the Vietnam draft) and was rehabilitated after his “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila” fights. Today Ali – recipient of medals from presidents Obama and Bush – embodies sportsman-hero ethos despite his crippling Parkinson’s disease.

Consider the suspension of the greatest-ever England cricket star Ian Botham, who in 1986 was caught out smoking cannabis and rowing with fellow-players. Botham rehabilitated himself by walking thousands of miles and earning millions of pounds for children’s charities, and was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Then there’s the case of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna. As the recently released docu-drama Senna shows, the deadly dispute with his team-mate French driver Alain Prost, left the Brazilian driver completely unhinged.  He received fines and a FIA suspension for his conduct in 1989, and as his ever more aggressive conduct on the track spiraled out of control, his fan-base was threatened. I met Senna in the late 1980s and remember the encounter as deeply unpleasant. Yet in the run-up to his death in 1994, Senna, a fundamentalist Christian, regarded himself as an agent of God. Posthumously, of course, the three time world champion Senna has been rehabilitated as one of the greatest drivers of all time.

George Best, Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne  — the list of soccer’s ‘fallen angels’ seems endless. What all these sporting heroes have in common is that, just like Icarus who soared too near the sun on false wings, or Prometheus who was condemned for giving stolen fire to give to mankind, they embody the “dark side” of our Romantic myths.

What is happening here? In each case we see how the pursuit of extreme excellence in sport triggers overwhelming growth of the “dark side”; downfall, then (for some) the painful road back toward the light. The story archetype being played out here is The Quest.

As in every Quest story, the journey is as much an interior one as a physical transformation. In the Arthurian Grail Quest, what is initially sought after is a physical chalice. But this is soon transformed into a set of mystical beliefs and spiritual values that transcend a material object. This is made very clear in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Back to Athletes. As the records tumble, the trophies build up and the rewards mount, the prize becomes symbolic. The athlete is no longer competing against others. It is himself he must beat to reach the end of his unreachable Quest. No wonder the experience renders extreme sportsmen and women partly insane.

And here we introduce the trope of the “Broken Quest” – the repetitive struggle to reach the place we have already been. The seeming impossibility of going one step further. The slide down the hill just as we reach the summit. The physical decay of age.

Just as the Orpheus story set the scene for the Voyage Without Return, so the classical figure who embodies the Broken Quest is Sisyphus.  Condemned eternally to roll his huge stone up a hill for his crimes, Sisyphus could be the patron saint of overly-ambitious athletes.

In Homeric legend he was the aggressive king of Corinth, engaged in a fatal competition with his rival and brother Salmoneus. Sisyphus betrayed the secrets of the Gods, for he regarded himself as equal to them.

Sisyphus tricked death twice (once by chaining up Thanatos, the God of Death, and once by getting Persephone to free him from the Underworld). As punishment for his over-reaching, Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of frustration with the boulder rolling away from him whenever he neared the top of the hill. What closer paradigm could there be for athletes competing against themselves and struggling to rehabilitate their reputations?

The final “broken story trope” is that played out by the darkest of all heroes in modern society: the media-conscious mass murderer.

I write these lines in Scandinavia, a region now struggling to come to terms with the July 2011 massacre at Utoeya in Norway, and the bombing in Oslo. The “rationale” of killer Anders Behring Breivik, was that his attacks and the deaths of over 90 people were “gruesome but necessary”.

Breivik made shameless use of his legal right of reply to broadcast his arguments for the killings, presenting a spurious mix of nationalism, racism and eugenics as the justification for his actions.

Of course this is completely false. Breivik joins a long list of mass killers who acted for still-unexplained reasons. Or rather, who were beyond reason. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the villain Iago was described by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge of possessing “motiveless malignity.” That captures the mood.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy Mcveigh. Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Washington Sniper John Allen Mohammed. UK lake District killer Derrick Bird. Germany’s Albertville Technical High School killings. Finland’s Jokela High School shooting. The Beslan hostage killings in North Ossetia. Harold Shipman, the UK doctor who killed 215 seniors, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. (30 years ago, as I sat in the courtroom reporting on his trial, Sutcliffe gazed deep into my eyes from the dock, and I knew I had seen the Monster).

In each case, psychologists have sought cognitive reasons for these acts in the individual biographies and formative experiences of the killers. And in cases other than the Norway massacre, the killer generally dies or commits suicide, having achieved his purpose.

But what if these people were impelled by a deeper, darker drive that forms part of the collective unconscious in each one of us? Perhaps there is no stopping these massacres because they are present at a primal level in the stories that we all carry inside us.

Certainly, Scandinavian popular fiction is rich in monsters and serves up staggering portions of random cruelty and sexual deviation. Steig Larssen’s Millennium trilogy and the movies based on it offer us a coterie of Breivik-like monsters: the killer-CEO Martin Vander; the deformed Russian spy Zalachenko; the unfeeling giant Niedermann who must (literally) be nailed to the floor. In Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander stories, the dark and rotten side of advanced liberal democratic civilization is pitilessly exposed.

Every newspaper describes the real-life killers as monsters. And they are. The most basic, fundamental story type in our analysis is Overcoming the Monster. Here, the community is threatened by a dragon, an ogre, an incarnation of evil, a vampire.

Like Perseus when he slew the Gorgon with the aid of his polished shield; like Beowulf when he kills Grendel and his mother; like Jack who fells both the Giant and Beanstalk with his trusty axe; like James Bond who saves the world with the aid of gadgets from “Q” his armourer, it falls to the hero to overcome the monster with the help of special tools.

In the full version of Overcoming the Monster, the threat is completely externalized. Yet over the centuries our monsters have become bipolar as our ambivalence toward them has grown. So we internalise the Monster. The father of all these is Mary Shelley’s monster and his anguished creator in Frankenstein. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant. The tortured spirit who is The Phantom of the Opera. And of course the comforting Disneyfied legend of Beauty and the Beast.

I want to end with the hypothesis that a “broken” version of Overcoming the Monster could lie behind this repetitive behaviour. Our storytelling-driven society demands heroes. But not everyone can be the hero. For the story to work, somebody always has to be the Monster. Failure to “complete” the full story results in a distortion where some monsters recast themselves as heroes and their destruction becomes a horrendous, inverted interpretation of the hero’s own monster-slaying.

The reason they do this is profound ambivalence towards monsters embedded in our society thanks to story-telling. So who is to blame when a gun-toting devil like Anders Behring Breivik recasts himself as warped hero or – just perhaps – a prince captive inside a monster’s body?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings show the ways in which psychiatry has been recruited for the task of identifying socially-acceptable or “normal” behaviours. All those lying outside accepted standards are labelled as “monsters.” In his 1974 lecture series Abnormal and its follow-up Society Must be Defended, Foucault explores the human monster, incest, cannibalism, witchcraft, and possession. And he suggests that the contemporary medico-legal power of criminal psychiatry is actively making monsters, not just identifying them. From the story-teller’s perspective, Foucault places our treatment of the Monster at the heart of contemporary social schizophrenia.

By contrast, Christian teachers tell us Breivik and his like are incontrovertible evidence of the continuing existence of pure evil in the world. And by a specious piece of legal sophistry, they claim this can only mean that God is present too.

Yet we dearly love a Devil. As the poet William Blake observed, in the epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton inverted the entire sequence of cosmic history to make the Devil, and not God, his true hero.

The last word on this should go to the poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; 
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

As I’ve tried to show, the “broken” versions of the Seven Basic Plots can be just as important in understanding deeper behaviour as the “complete” versions that we find in literature. Here – just as in Tragedy, the dark side overwhelms the light. And the roles played by those three types of celebrity – the doomed rock star, the damaged athlete, and the mass murderer – should not be under-estimated in our quest to understand how story drives all human behaviour.

Richard House

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