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and the Art of Science:
Interview from the Smithsonian Associates Presentation, "Storytelling:
Passport to Success in the 21st Century" with Seth Kahan
a scientist and a manager, John. I understand you are paying a
lot of attention to storytelling. Why is that?
taking storytelling so seriously that I’m now spending
part of my time at the new institute for media literacy at USC.
I’m particularly interested in digital storytelling, in
new ways to use multiple media to tell stories and in the ability
of kids, who are now growing up in a digital world, to figure
out new ways to tell stories. They have the ability to build
interpretive movies very simply and to lay sound tracks around
the content. They condition or “sculpture” the context
around the content. The serious interplay between context and
content is key to what film — and rich media in general
— are about. I want to understand what film people know
about storytelling. I want to know what makes them such good
storytellers. What are the techniques (and grammars) of film
that help them create an emotional scaffolding around a story
so that it connects first to the gut and then to the head?
storytelling? Well, the simplest answer to your question is
that stories talk to the gut, while information talks to the
mind. You can’t talk a person through a change in religion
or a change in a basic mental model. There has to be an emotional
component in what you are doing. That is to say, you use a connotative
component (what the thing means) rather than a denotative component
(what it represents). First, you grab them in the gut and then
you start to construct (or re-construct) a mental model. If
you try to do this in an intellectual or abstract way, you find
that it’s very hard, if not impossible, to talk somebody
into changing their mental models. But if you can get to them
emotionally, either through rhetoric or dramatic means (not
overly dramatic!), then you can create some scaffolding that
effectively allows them to construct a new model for themselves.
You provide the scaffolding and they construct something new.
It doesn’t seem to work if you just try to tell them what
to think. They have to internalize it. They have to own it.
So the question is: what are the techniques for creating scaffolding
that facilitate the rich internalization and re-conceptualization
and re-contextualization of their own thinking relative to the
experience that you’re providing them? Put more simply:
how do you get them to live the idea?
similar to your concept of communities. You said: “You can
never design a community; you can only nurture a community.”
It’s as though you build the trellis for the plant to climb
That’s one of the reasons we need to understand this esoteric
stuff known as epistemology and social network theory. This stuff
starts to pay off when we use it to figure out how we can construct
the scaffolding, the trellis, which we want to put in place to
support the communication of a new idea and the kinds of nurturing
that we need to do. We can use this stuff to help us figure out
the physical space, the social space and the informational space.
These spaces need have something wonderful about them, so that
the idea doesn’t appear just once, but becomes something
that’s lived: it affects the way I see the world.
can think of other applications, like helping an institution change
its culture. But there’s also parenting, and developing
In fact one of the reasons I am at USC is to look at broader issues
such as, “How do you re-think a culture of learning that
might underlie new forms of journalism? How do you create an environment
that is conducive to more folks participating in a democracy?”
It’s the scaffolding that engenders our attention. It’s
also helpful to understand the new technologies. What is the role
of blogs; that is, weblogs? How do they provide a supportive structure?
How do they enable us to make sense of what is going on? How do
they work? How do they communicate? How effective are they? When
do they reach critical mass? And how?
Are there similarities between blogs and rumors? Blogs mystify
me. When I heard of them, I thought, ‘Blech! A blog? A serial
conversation? What good is that?’
are powerful when there’s a set of blogs working independently
that end up helping you triangulate on the same point. You have
different points of view that end up linking to the same mega-idea.
If you have three independent rumors that all say the same thing,
then that rumor may turn out to have a certain kind of significance.
What’s interesting is whether we should read blogs in
the same way as we read a newspaper.
Notice, also, that blogs can suddenly reach a critical mass
that then forces something out into the open, into public consciousness.
You might think of it as an analogy to the subconscious vs.
the conscious. The formal or conscious part is what today’s
journalism is about, New York Times and so on. But the informal
layer, comprising things like blogs, is like our unconscious
mind. It’s not publicly visible. But all kinds of things
are happening there. Things get linked together and suddenly
there can be enough links (creating a dense mesh of intertextual
links) that the underlying ‘idea’ breaks through
to public consciousness. The recent Trent Lott situation is
an excellent example. Initially, the mainstream press didn’t
pick up on what he said. It wasn’t in the public consciousness.
It was the blogs that identified the issue and got the debate
going. It was connected at the subconscious level — speaking
metaphorically in terms of the social mind. Enough energy was
generated, and then it burst forth into the conscious mind and
into the formal media.
a big way.
a huge way, yes! That’s what happens. That’s how you
get a phase transition from the unconscious to the conscious.
That’s how you get a phase transition from within the informal
social networks to the public recognition and mainstream media.
And we know a lot about the mathematics of this. Networks help
us understand what leads to phase transitions.
you provide a reference for this?
at Linked: The New Science of Networks . This “small world”
stuff comes from the physicists’ community and the mathematics
community. It comes from graph theory. I call it the topological
approach. Much of Erdos’ classical work on the theory of
random graphs provides the foundation. Then you add the discovery
of the kind networks being created in society in social networks
and web networks. Nearly all these networks follow what is called
“the power law.” It’s completely different from
the normal distribution — the bell curve — that we
all know. It’s extraordinary the extent to which all these
social phenomena have the same properties and can be described
by a power law. It shows us how these networks start to condense,
so to speak and then possibly go through a phase transition. A
good example is the phenomenon of the rich getting richer, in
terms of the growth of rich hubs (and their connections with others).
So these communities connect and grow, at times slowly and smoothly,
and at times explosively, with sudden shifts. We are just now
beginning to understand the dynamics of all this.
you explain your use of the word, “topological.”
“topological”, I mean, “what’s connected
to what.” It’s graph theoretic topology. Here are
some questions to explore: How do these networks break apart?
Are there isolated components in these networks when links are
broken or key individuals (key in terms of their being hubs) leave
the network? What happens if you start blindly downsizing a corporation?
If you move the wrong people out of the network, then suddenly
the network, that was deeply interconnected, starts to fracture.
Suddenly there are no linkages, or pathways that connect all the
nodes together or connect crucial parts of the network together.
Often, this is what’s inadvertently happening when we downsize
a company or two companies merge. (Seeking ‘synergy’
often destroys real synergy). Understanding the topology of these
networks, the different kind of networks and the roles that they
play, is critical. If you don’t pay attention to this, you
can end up destroying the social and knowledge sharing fabrics
without realizing it.
either inadvertently or stupidly.
were talking in your presentation just now about the subtleties
of storytelling. Could you say more about that?
what is the structure of a narrative? What makes narratives
fit so perfectly in the architecture of the human mind? What
are the ways of creating the scaffolding for that narrative?
How do you set the context for that narrative? How do you maintain
consistency with your core ideas as you set the context? Now
there are different media. You can do it orally. You can do
it in terms of writing and you can do it in terms of film and
Let’s take a look at online games, such as Lineage, which
are a much larger phenomenon than most people are aware. This
particular game holds the record for having the most people
online at once, probably hundreds of thousands. It is immensely
popular in Korea. Or, in this country, consider Sims Online
or EverQuest. If you take into account not only the game itself
but also all of the peripheral activities (activities happening
around the edge of the game such as the support sites, the chat
rooms, and so on) you find a rich social ecology constantly
unfolding. But just focus on the game itself which involves
all the players building and evolving a complex world, and you
see a new kind of nonlinear, multi-authored narrative being
Yesterday I heard an amazing comment from a 16 year old named
Colin. Colin said: “I don’t want to study Rome in
high school. Hell, I build Rome every day in my online game.”
(Caesar III ). And in so doing he is continually building a
new narrative space that goes on evolving. Of course, we could
dismiss this narrative construction as not really being a meaningful
learning experience but a bit later he and his dad were engaged
in a discussion about the meaningfulness of class distinctions
— lower, middle, etc — and his dad stopped and asks
him what class actually means to him. Colin responds: “Well,
it’s how close you are to the Senate.” Where did
you learn that, Colin? He said, “The closer you are physically
to the Senate building, to the plazas, gardens, Triumphal Arch
raises desirability of the land, and makes you upper class and
produces plebians. It’s based on simple rules of location
to physical objects in the games (Caesar III)”. Then,
he added, “I know that in the real world the answer is
more likely how close you are to the senators, themselves —
that defines class. But it’s kinda the same.”
the past, I had tended to think of narratives as being basically
linear and but they aren’t necessarily. As Steve Denning
has pointed out part of the power of a narrative is its rhetorical
structure that brings listeners into an active participation
with the narrative, either explicitly or by getting them to
pose certain questions to themselves.
fact, stories have always been a kind of dialectic or conversation
between the storyteller and the listeners. Thus the meaning
of the literary classics — and the related narrative space
— has steadily evolved over time. So the evolution of
the narrative space per se isn’t new. But what is new
in the online games is the scale and pace of the change. First,
there are many more people actively involved in shaping the
story — as many as tens of thousands at a time, rather
than just a handful with the literary canon. Second, the technology
enables the participation to be radically more active than before,
not simply the odd comment that might or might not be listened
to. Third, the participants are geographically scattered all
over the globe, rather than concentrated in one place or country.
Fourth, the changes are happening at an incredible pace, that
is, in minutes and hours, not in decades or even centuries.
The dimensions are so different that the evolution of the narrative
space really becomes something new.
Here’s another thing that’s curious. Let’s
look at the exercise that you had us do in the conference just
now. You asked us to share a story with someone close at hand.
You told us that we’d only have a short time to start
the story and then we would have to continue it later in the
conference. One thing that we know about the structures of stories
is that it’s dangerous to stop a story before you’re
finished. But, you gave us enough time in a social context to
start a story; then you said, “Sit down.” Now, something
interesting starts to happen. I didn’t have the time to
finish my story. Normally, I won’t tell a story if I don’t
think I can finish it. The way in which you orchestrated things
here turned on what makes stories so powerful. What you did
was to condition us. You said, “You have 20, 30, 40 seconds
to tell a story.” So I might do one of a couple things.
I might give a synopsis to my partner so I can reach the end
of the story. Or, I might decide to just tell you enough of
the story that you will come up to me at the break. These are
the kinds of things that happen, all subconsciously. But you
have to understand the structure of stories to know that.
makes me think about the metaphor you introduced in your presentation:
the tree and the roots. You said that sharing knowledge was like
uprooting a tree and transplanting it somewhere else. You called
the tree, the “smallest portable context.” A story
would be an example of the smallest portable context. You said
that the roots of the tree symbolize tacit knowledge, shared practices
(social practices and work practices) and understandings that
may not be explicit. In order for the tree to continue to live
after it is transplanted, there must be a certain amount of shared
practices and tacit understanding. I have a question about “uprooting”
the tree. In a sense, the tree is never uprooted because moving
it is a continuous process. It’s not discrete. You’re
not jumping from one state to another. You are moving along a
tree is a living process. It will die if you don’t replant
it, for one thing. And if you plant it in a context that’s
too different from what it’s been accustomed to, it also
dies, because the chemistry of that soil works against the way
that these roots have been working. But replant it in somewhat
similar soil and it will sprout new roots and leaves and continue
to live in a transformed way.
come back to my storytelling exercise, we’ve got people
pulling their trees out of the ground as they begin to share their
stories. Then, I’m saying, — while the trees are dangling
in the air: “Okay, sit down now.” Some of those trees
are going to be planted later and they’re going to survive.
A lot of those trees are going to die and some of the trees are
going to be transformed by the fact that they’ve been in
the air longer than they can be to survive.
That plays out fairly simply for stories. But what is more curious
is what happens when you see it played out in terms of practices.
Science works on replicable knowledge that flows across the
entire scientific world. Most of us have thought that scientific
knowledge is explicit and can be completely reported on and
replicated from those reports. But it’s not universally
true. Basically what happens is that there are networks of scientific
practice, which embody a practice within a certain area of science.
The participants share enough of the same ‘roots’
that they can replicate the knowledge (or experiment). It is
their shared roots that enable the knowledge to flow through
The reason why knowledge flows so readily across a community
of practice is that the members all share the same roots, not
just some. That’s what enables a community to work. The
reason why we keep trying to replicate an experiment is that
we want to make sure that the stuff sitting above the ground
is the right stuff and that we have found the minimal root structure
required for it to be reliably replicated. Sometimes in an experiment,
we engage in practices that are not known to other members of
the community or even to ourselves. For example, in a novel
and complex biochemical preparation experimenters may be doing
things — that they’re unaware of in terms of the
way they do the experiment — that actually make the experiment
work. In science what we’re trying to do when we get other
communities of practice (albeit, usually from the same network
of practice) to replicate an experiment is to find the minimal
roots of the new knowledge, so to speak. These are the shared
practices that are used in replicating the experiment and supporting
the claims by the community that this is (warranted) knowledge
and not just an opinion or belief.
look at another very powerful example. Stories are one reason
why novels have been so powerful through the ages. Why did we
create the canon? A set of classic literary works is the canon
for western civilization because these stories constantly get
repositioned and re-contextualized but in that process help
to extend the culture in a time relevant, situated way. The
meaning of the story may morph according to the social practices
of the culture at any moment in time even when the story line
stays relatively invariant. That is how civilization advances
and why these canons can be so powerful. A canon is a collection
of stories. It can be folk tales. It can be biblical stories.
It can be the classics. These stories have the capacity to move
wonderfully through time. They have enough of a root structure
that enables us to uproot them and replant them at a later time
in another place.
contrast, if I give you a fact, you don't have enough of a context
to be able to understand what that fact means in a new context
or even if it is still meaningful. Why was it uttered? To whom?
What else was going on? Remember how I described how Cartesian
philosophy underlies so much of today’s pedagogy. But
what was going on with Descartes when he said something equivalent
to, “I think therefore I am”? If you don't understand
the religious environment that he was struggling against in
that particular moment in time, you won't understand the force
of what he was really trying to say, or why he was saying it.
It made eminent sense at the time. It doesn’t necessarily
make the same sense today yet our system of schooling and our
notions of pedagogy are still based on it.
By contrast, stories are able to move on. When I tell you stories
of the persecution and what was going on at that time, you begin
to understand why Descartes had to play it safe., why he needed
to placate the Church. You understand why he said certain things
in certain ways.
was a performance storyteller for about fifteen years. I studied
myths: King Arthur and Beowulf and the like. When I really got
into it, I had this eerie sense that the stories were tumbling
down through the generations, as opposed to me selecting and then
telling the story.
And as the stories tumble down through us, parts of them are preserved.
But sometimes there are very subtle shifts that help us re-embed
it in a new time and place. This preserves the authenticity of
the story. That’s what is so powerful. Culture is passed
on orally because (a) we can remember stories, but (b) we can
tell stories re-positioned in a different way at a different time
in a different culture. We can have one foot in that other culture
and be able to tell the story slightly differently in our own
culture so that it connects better.
your perspective, as someone who often addresses CEOs, as well
as managers and practitioners, what are the most exciting applications
of storytelling in organizations today?
I find so interesting is talking to boards of directors. You’ve
got 30 seconds to capture their attention and three minutes to
make your point. You’ve got to capture their attention and
make your point in a way that it sticks with them throughout the
rest of the meeting. You want to condition the conversation that
unfolds at the board meeting in terms of your story. If you just
plunk a fact down, or an assertion, it will get swept away. So
the trick is, first of all, how can you capture the audience’s
attention and, second, how do you communicate something that will
have a life of its own throughout the duration of, at least, the
rest of the board meeting, and hopefully later on? How can your
story become a scaffolding for their discussion, providing context
to their content? I want to see whole points-of-view shifting
though my stories.
see you planting a trellis. You’re throwing a magic seed
down that springs into a whole lattice, and you’re hoping
that their conversations are going to use that lattice.
When I work with corporate managements, that’s what matters
almost more than anything else. I want something important to
be in place after I leave. That something has to be a seed around
which other things start to grow, the tiny crystal around which
many things crystallize.
sounds very close to what Steve Denning is doing with his springboard
stories . He tells these stories as though he’s planting
seeds. Then he leaves and he lets the stories do the work. He
lets the stories climb the trellises.
Now exactly how well it really works, we’re not really
sure yet. We sense that it’s working. We see that the
traditional approach to communication — bullet points
in PowerPoint slides — doesn’t work at all in this
area. But we haven’t yet been able to measure the impact
of organizational storytelling in any formal sense. So our intuitions
are not analytic. Steve Denning’s work isn’t analytic.
My work isn’t exactly analytic. We have a strong sense
that we gain more leverage through the storytelling mechanism
than many others. Maybe one day we’ll figure out a way
to measure it.
am always trying to find new ways to use familiar tools. For
example, I’m exploring the use of compound real options
theory. It’s a financial tool that is much more dynamic
than using NPV (net present value) calculations.
very complicated. It stretches the mathematical abilities of
most CFOs. But it’s an extraordinarily powerful analytical
tool. You can cast a lot of what we are talking about in terms
of a compound real options. That is something that brings a
different kind of credibility to this discussion. Many of my
arguments for radical innovation are now cast in this framework.
This buys credibility in the CFO community, which used to say
to me things like, “Go put your sandals back on, John,
and putter in that magic silicon sandbox called Silicon Valley.”
There are some ways that you capture attention and other ways
that you get credibility. So a story cast in compound real options
theory has a certain ecological validity and credibility in
the financial community. It sticks with them sometimes a year
or two after the fact. Both practices and stories provide the
lenses to help us make sense of things.
Now let’s take a look at information. It has been defined
as the difference that makes a difference. If you follow this,
you can think of information as that which causes a ripple in
the pond. But, the whole issue of, “What is the pond?”
is a devastatingly complicated question. Philosophers haven’t
been able to answer it. Here is a simple model with clear rules
and yet nobody ever really seriously asked, but what’s
the pond that the ripple is on? When Paul Duguid and I were
doing this chapter of our book and we realized how fundament
this question really was and that nobody had ever seriously
answered it. Sure, we can formally measure it (i.e., using Shannon’s
theory) but what really is it?
is a whole new way into the subject. It’s having another
look at the subterranean work that goes on in the work environment
— the cultural fabrics, the social fabrics and the habits
in both social and work practice. Here we have to use our ability
to see something new. We have to see the world through a set
of distinctions. These distinctions form the lenses that enable
us to detect both the ripples on the pond. One person’s
ripples are not necessarily another person’s.
what one person sees as information is not necessarily what
another person sees as information. In fact, people do have
very different points of view, different interests and different
this points to something very interesting about the energy of
groups. As they come together, over and over again, different
points of view collide. Through that iteration we’re grinding
new lenses. This is where innovation happens. Our practices are
morphing; they’re producing new sets of distinctions and
new ways to understand the world. It’s a place of iteration.
There are negotiations about practices — creative abrasions
within and between communities that are trying to share something
or come together.
some of the roots between the communities will be conflicting,
you’re describing a model for innovation that holds multiple
worlds where some of the basic assumptions in one world are actually
in conflict with the assumptions of another world.
is why we use this obscure term “negotiation-in-practice
(originating with Lee Star).” What has to be negotiated
are some of the root structures. A lot of that gets done below
the surface, as opposed to negotiation that happens openly and
explicitly, on the table, as in conversation. This negotiation
is usually around boundary objects. A boundary object is something
that is used understood by members of the two different communities,
and bridges their worlds. One example is could be a prototype,
another — a blueprint. Blueprints are used by the architect,
the engineer, the owner, and others. Each of them sees it differently
yet there is enough shared understanding that the difference of
their perspectives can come into focus around it.
said this negotiation gets done below the surface as opposed to
open and explicit negotiation that is on the table. What is meant
here by ‘below the surface?’
I mean underground, subterranean practices. Let’s take the
example of the blueprint being used by an engineer and an architect.
The architect has certain reasons for wanting a particular wall
to be a particular way. The engineer says, “Well, I can’t
build a load-bearing wall that way.”
and forth they go. Suddenly they come together and say, “Aha!
Suppose we shift something over here that enables us now to
use a new kind of material over here. Then maybe we can both
achieve our goals. Won’t that solve the problem?”
And so, something new comes about. Both of them bring their
practices together for that moment in time and construct something
that’s happening explicitly. That’s in a conversation.
and no. There’s a lot more going on than just a verbal
conversation. If we were just doing that on the telephone, it
probably wouldn’t work. But there are a lot of other factors
at work here. For example, maybe the architect goes out to the
construction site and tries to see the problem from the engineer’s
point of view, and figure out what he was really attempting
to accomplish by designing the wall that way. The design (or
boundary object) is now situated in a broader context. In that
shared context, each can adjust his own thinking and practice
to encompass the other’s practice. And so on. It has to
do with becoming more attuned to each other’s set of skills.
When these skills come together around a situated boundary object,
there can be a really creative compromise.
be surprised. There are all kinds of examples of impossible
things that just keep inching ahead. These can be million dollar
issues. Many millions of dollars can come from solving some
of these problems. That gets your attention.
sounds like each side is sifting through the other’s “roots,”
exploring the periphery.Seth: It sounds like each side is sifting
through the other’s “roots,” exploring the periphery.
it is an exploration — each center is in the other’s
periphery, but it is also a clashing. I call it, the creative
collision of craft. That collision taking place in a fabric
of trust can go — as we were saying with storytelling
— huge distances.
every radical innovation from PARC has come about by creative
collision of different crafts usually within a community of
practice or sometimes across multiple communities of practice.
If this is so, the question is: How do you build an ecology
that facilitates these practices productively collide?
almost always bringing crafts together and having members of
each negotiate within and between their practices. That’s
part of being in a productive and ever evolving community of
practice. We don't usually talk about the diversity of crafts
within a community of practice. I believe that we’re beginning
to see the fine grain structure of what is going on here. What
it produces can be amazing.
the warm, fuzzy nature of community — the mutually supportive
community that is often talked about — doesn’t indicate
the abrasiveness that you’re looking for in an innovative
does social capital! We all talk about social capital, but some
of the worst labs that I’ve ever been in had extraordinarily
high social capital within the lab. But social capital can create
the feeling, “I’m better than anybody else,”
and this creates dysfunctional work relationships. It creates
the idea that “you’re a bad guy.” One of the
best ways to build social capital is to have a common enemy.
If that enemy is in the outside world, then guess what? You’ll
have a very hard time transferring ideas from the inside to
the outside. So, social capital can work against you. Communities
of practice are not necessarily very open. They can become very
rigid structures, just as rigid as hierarchies. Look at experience
of the guilds in medieval times, like the stonecutters. They
were very exclusionary. They were seats of absolute power. They
were even able to challenge the church!
we need to be careful when we’re using terms like “community”
which are often spoken of as warm and mutually supportive and
open. But a community is a highly ambiguous domain. A community
is not necessarily a warm and mutually supportive domain. What
we see in an innovative community is a lot of abrasion and tough
clashes among their crafts and practices. These iterations can
be tremendously exciting and we may end up creating something.
But the clashes can be tremendously stressful for the participants
when these forms of abrasion take place. Sparks fly, as Dorothy
Leonard has said.
Hey, good luck!