The POV Dispatch is our Autodesk internal newsletter, published monthly, where we discuss the big ideas that are important to us and our customers. It is published by our Corporate Strategy & Engagement team of which Autodesk Labs is a part. Bill O'Connor is a Corporate Strategist. Bill contributed an article about storytelling to a recent issue, and with her permission, I thought I would share it with you.
In the beginning there was the word...
Once upon a time...
Call me Ishmael...
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
The reaction we all have to famous opening lines like these is universal and timeless: here comes a story. Our deeply felt instinct for creating stories — and our love of hearing them — is as old as the human race itself. The ancient campfire, the kitchen table, the office water cooler, and all the way up to the today with the web and social media: wherever people gather, physically or virtually, they have always created and shared stories.
The Unmatchable Power of Stories — Especially Today
Stories have an unrivaled power to communicate ideas, persuade people and change behavior, and align and unite people, organizations, and even nations. Because of that, they are as essential a part of our survival and development as other critical innovations like language, fire, and currency, and electricity. And today, even in our technologically sophisticated age, the simple act of creating and telling a story is more relevant than ever — especially in the business world.
What Makes Stories So Powerful?
Stories have a few critical qualities that make them so powerful, especially today:
They are emotionally engaging and inherently personal, usually presenting us with a protagonist we connect with and a set of events that we want to follow.
They are inherently focused on meaning and values, telling us what is important and what isn't, which makes them an invaluable filter in an era of infinite information.
They are memorable and retellable — and often ready-made memes — making it easier to spread them widely, quickly, and accurately among teams, companies, organizations, and even countries.
More and more people are recognizing these unique properties, and as a result, an entire burgeoning industry has sprung up around storytelling, particularly for and by companies and organizations: a flow of articles, books, seminars, and entire conferences all over the world. And that's where I was on October 4 this year: at the Future of Storytelling conference in New York City.
The Future of Storytelling: A Great Conference That is NOT I.B.N.U.
In a world where most conferences are IBNU — Interesting But Not Useful — here, finally, was a conference worth attending. Before I get to the content of what I experienced and learned at the conference, let me give you a sense of the context set by the organizers. That Wednesday morning, 400 people from many parts of the U.S. and many other countries, and from all walks of personal and professional life, gathered on a dock in lower Manhattan. We then got on a ferry and sailed peacefully over to Staten Island, where a kind of campus setting had been prepared for the event: university-style buildings, green lawns in between them, outdoor tents with food and drink areas, and conference staff members buzzing around making sure everything was awesome.
Was It Awesome, You Ask?...
Yes, it was, actually. Here's a very abridged list of some of the people I met at the conference (below). This list is a good indication of the wide range of people who care about storytelling today, and what they're working on to utilize the power of the story:
Alexis Lloyd, the Creative Director of the New York Times Labs, whose team is exploring new ways to tell stories, and the tools needed to tell them;
Justin Wedes, one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who now runs a consulting firm and is working on rebuilding Detroit;
Elaine McMillon, a filmmaker who created an excellent interactive experience about her hometown in Southern West Virginia;
Lisa Nova, a YouTube star who has pioneered new ways to tell stories online, and whose work has received attention as being controversial;
Candice Faktor, whose company has create a thriving global virtual storytelling environment for teenage girls;
As well as, the head of brand for NPR; a professor at the MIT-Media Lab; and a gaming expert from Austin, Texas.
Key Takeaways For Me, and For Autodesk
So that's a bit of the "who"; now here's some of the "what" I learned: some of the most interesting insights that came from attending the Future of Storytelling conference:
We Have to (Keep) Get(ing) Better At Telling the Autodesk Story
I came away with an even greater respect for the importance of telling the overall Autodesk story from a more personal, emotional, and meaning-focused perspective. I think our vision statement — "We help people imagine, design, and create a better world..." — is a good start in that direction, and we've gotten much better at telling our story over the past five years, but we still can do it better.
Some Aspects of "Story" Are Timeless, But Some Are Also Changing Radically
Story and storytelling types like to say that the basics of stories haven't changed in millions of years, but that's only half true. Yes, stories were always, and still are today, about connecting with people, meaning, the expression of values, drama and emotion, and things like that. But technology is also radically changing how we tell stories: for example, today our stories are often more inclusive of our audience, or the crowd; they are increasingly visual/video-based, as the ability to create, share, and consumer video increases; and they don't always follow the classic "story narrative" outline, but instead also follow new and emerging structures that we've never seen before.
Storytelling is Very Powerful — And Very Dangerous
At the conference I also gained an even greater appreciation for integrity and authenticity in storytelling. In other words, especially if you're a corporation, if you're going to tell people your story, you can't try to bullshit them. Because stories are so deep in our cultural DNA, we can usually spot a false or manipulative one immediately, and we tend to hate those stories just as quickly. So storytelling is not only the communication of something, but also a good process for figuring out what an organization is actually all about — and this pre-communication work is just one of the many benefits of thinking about storytelling as a whole in the corporate context.
One final thought on stories and Autodesk: in today's hyper-connected world, we all have access to virtually infinite information, and this makes it harder and harder to filter out what's important to us, and what will have deep and long-term meaning in our lives and careers. Stories — whether old school protagonist/narrative-style or new school virtual/distributed/non-linear-style — can be a powerful tool to tell people what Autodesk is, and isn't, all about. So I think we can all benefit, and benefit the company, by thinking about our own role in crafting, telling, and evolving the Autodesk story, and looking for ways to make it clearer and better. The Autodesk Story is our story, and we should all think about the roles we can play, as both protagonists and authors, of this compelling, and evolving, tale.
Storytelling is alive in the lab.