Silverman, Lori. ed. 2006. Wake me up when the data is [sic] over: how organizations use storytelling to drive results. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & sons. 288pp.

“Stories are like viruses. They are contagious.” (xvii)

This book is published in connection with the National Storytelling Network (NSN, by interviewing 171 of its members, representing some 72 organizations.

Part I focuses on how stories are used in work functions; Part II addresses their application to organizations; Part III provides advice and research to make stories used more deliberately in organizations.

The purpose of the book is to “increase the visibility and influence of story work in organizations, specifically its practical applications to… marketing and market research, finance, customer service…, project management…, organizational change, building teams and teamwork and dealing with specific issues” (xviii). The primary audience are those interested in moving organizations to a higher level of performance… “This includes business owners, executives, and senior leaders” (xix).

In the Introduction Sylvia Lovely considers our present age as a new era (various names are suggested– Conceptual Age; Creative Age; Dream Society; Existential Era, among others) and compares its definition and importance to Quantum theory, where the elements in a universe are affected and defined by their relationship to each other.

Lovely challenges leaders and administrators to share information and knowledge effectively with employees by connecting all levels of an organization by storying. She believes this is critical in the Conceptual Age, in which people are more interested in the quality of their lives than data. Her “secret is to integrate right–brain qualities of imagination and innovative thinking with left–brain analytical thought” (xxviii).

Emphasis in SIL on imagination and innovation is not new, but if administrators are going to use stories as part of their strategy, they will have to build trust and be tolerance of those who have opposing points of view. Some recent SIL–WBT publications that I will refer to later seem questionable on tolerance.

In SIL and WBT, do we hear or tell stories that uphold traditional values on the one hand and yet promote our new vision on the other? What, for example, are the stories about V2025 and who is telling them? Corporate statements commonly use the terms partnership, capacity, impact, sustainability, traditional approaches, new approaches, cluster approaches, vision 2025, and “ends statements,” but how are such words and concepts illustrated and validated? Some stories have emerged to support the concepts, but how are they structured and circulated? What role do grass–roots members, employees, media, friends, churches and our acquaintances play in telling them?

One goal of our organizations is to form partnerships and there are indeed many examples, but how is the success of any particular cooperative effort measured? It would seem to me that anyone involved in a language project has been in a partnership relationship. When we translated the NT for the Kewa people in the Southern Highlands of PNG our partnerships were multiple: the village elders, language assistants, house helpers, local government officials (administrative, educational, agricultural, health), school teachers, missions and missionaries (Lutheran, Catholic, Bible Missionary Church, and many more), Provincial politicians, SIL colleagues, national friends and colleagues, supporters in the US, SIL administrators, the WBT financial infrastructure, and so on. We could not have survived without sustainable partnerships.

Further, how is success defined in our organizations? For example, is a worldwide consultation on Scripture Use (as reported in Intercom) an example of success? How does such a consultation contribute to success?* Some partnership stories to illustrate how world–wide Bible translation efforts have been aided would help.

In another Intercom article an author states that the “discipline of collaboration” is necessary and that “neglected partnerships” are the leading cause of failure. But what exactly has failed and what evidence is there that neglected partnerships is the cause? We need some stories that illustrate failed partnerships.

A somewhat new Wycliffe International partnership is with a number of agencies in Bible storytelling, including the use of videos and electronic media. Numerous projects have been completed or are underway with a formal training process involved. Motivational stories about the success of these projects have been crafted but need to be distributed more widely.

This may be sacred ground, but how does one examine the “prayer partnerships” reported in Intercom? Does more people praying for Bible translation projects mean that there will be more “results” (as in Results Based Management)? We are commanded to pray but do we believe that God will accomplish his purposes in Bible translation even if there are few or no prayer partnerships? We still need to pray and stories about the effectiveness of prayer are important and should be circulated.

One of the positive results of V2025 reported in Intercom is the resulting diversity of the Bible translation movement. Still, stories that ascribe this diversity to V2025 would be useful. Partnerships, as we are reminded, should allow each partner to accomplish more than they would have by acting alone. But stories that demonstrate how partnerships and diversity have accomplished some of the goals of vision 2025 would be beneficial.

The two Intercom issues also focus on impact, claiming “we are what we celebrate.” However, the authors write that what we celebrate turns out mainly to be the wrong thing. An example they give is the celebration of NT publications, instead of Scripture impact. This emphasis, they say, demonstrates how limited the traditional approach has been because it has not paid attention to the needs of oral societies. Such groups need, for example, Old Testament portions, lectionaries for liturgical churches, Psalms for prayer, and so on, perhaps more than they need the New Testament. Another failure the authors of Intercom report is focusing narrowly on vernacular translations because, apparently, many churches would prefer languages of wider communication and conservative translations. According to these views, we are producing NTs that are not usable or sufficient to address the spiritual needs of communities. So we again celebrate the wrong things–NT traditional vernacular publications. A further criticism is that some NT projects dilute the energy from developing community capacity–“our original impact orientation.”

These claims seem farfetched and overstated. Nevertheless, to the degree that they represent official viewpoints, they need additional research, supplemented by stories that demonstrate how producing and using the NT first or alone has detracted from the message that God has for vernacular communities.

Several Intercom authors refer to the translated New Testaments as something that translators put “on their trophy shelves.” By analogy (and in my words), these NTs are like trophies to be admired, taken down and dusted off, but are of no practical value. However, the metaphor is not really suitable because trophies are not handled out willy–nilly––they are for recognized achievement. Even metaphorically, a trophy may be justified for the years of labor and work done by dedicated translators. Invariably there are important and motivational stories that lie behind such a “trophy.” The Intercom remarks could benefit from supporting data (in the way of stories) from cultural insiders.

Further claims in the Intercom issues are that SIL and WBT should adjust their ethos, recognize the roles of orality and diglossia, focus on the ends statements of the Board, avoid fixed production goals, take a community–based approach, train good planers, revise their “guidebooks”, and realign their thinking at all levels. There are plenty of good ideas there: good planning is always necessary, although what ultimately happens is in the hands of God; communities should be involved in determining what is helpful for their needs, although we may not always like what they say (and therefore not do it); guidebooks always need revision; orality is central in most communities where SIL does fieldwork; a community based approach involves, in many cases, an ecumenical orientation; good planners can be trained but are also opportunists; and so on. However, some short stories on instances where our ethos has been favorably adjusted to suit the current vision should also be given.

If we celebrate the wrong things, what should we celebrate? Some of the Intercom authors suggest celebrating matters like identifying and assessing the needs of a language cluster, the cooperation of partnerships, providing a project with suitable facilitators or advisors, achieving sustainable language development and providing documentation in suitable ways.

In response, note that language cluster projects have been a neglected but well–known strategy for years. It is also obvious that every language project needs people to cooperate, although this cannot count as “sustainable” because cooperation can fall apart very quickly. Again, translators would agree that language groups need adequate materials in “usable media” and they want “bodies of believers” using the Scriptures. But this is hardly new and there have been many stories documenting such accomplishments and goals in a variety of traditional language programs. The success of projects must always be related to the individuals who actually carry them out. They need to be in focus more than the particular approach or object that is celebrated.

A further criticism in the Intercom issues is about product–oriented (read New Testament) development programs. The weaknesses are purported to include insufficient use of the regional language, a NT product ethos, unfortunate assumptions on the use and distribution of the product, limited community relationships, not enough attention on sustainable programs, to much of a focus on print, and other things.

There are, however, many stories that prove that these claims are overstated and give a distorted picture on the historical SIL approach. One historical goal of SIL has been to turn its work over to others so that it is not seen as a traditional and competitive mission. In this sense it is a sustainable goal. Cooperation is also important and necessary, but not perpetual cooperation by SIL, an organization that was not created to last indefinitely. Stories that demonstrate how SIL has cooperated with other organizations are plentiful and stories of turning the work over to others are ample as well. Today we also need stories that demonstrate capacity oriented and sustainability projects within the so–called new paradigm. We need real stories of what has happened in the last 6 or so years.

I believe the information in the book edited by Silverman is instructive and can be applied to what I have just commented on from the Intercom issues. There are the so–called traditional projects that still exist and there are new paradigms. Although the information on using stories is somewhat redundant in the chapter summaries that follow, I hope that the book will provide some clues on how we can put organizational and motivational stories to good use.*

Chapter one is by Susan Stites: How can I help you? Service with a smile–and story.

Stites notes “Customers had more confidence when products they ordered had the approval of a trusted employee” (8). SIL and WBT recruiters probably recognize this dictum and supplement their efforts with stories by competent fieldworkers. Stites notes that if the rank and file believe in the organization and its goals they will use their personalities to create their own stories that can become “part of the legend” (10). “The most prevalent challenge to these organizations encounter is getting employees to come forth with their stories” (14).

Chapter two is by Marcy Fisher: Put your money where your mouth is: unleashing the power of people through stories.

Fisher says that we should think of stories as a management tool (19): “Some of our storytellers work with an external coach; some even participate in theater and improvisational groups to hone their story skills.” Story use needs to be conscious and purposeful and considerate of those hearing it (22). To take this seriously would mean that SIL and WBT would give training to their storytellers so that they can convey our “tribal knowledge.” A relevant question that Fisher asks is: How can media go about in selecting the right story for impact and art? Fisher notes that company practices are illustrated through stories: staff retention, employee recognition and customer experiences. In particular, we should take “techno–speak” and turn it into a story.

Chapter three is an important reminder by Susan Osborn and Marcy Fisher: We need more we and less me: how stories build teams and teamwork.

The first question they ask is relevant to our organizations today: “Do we have the energy and vision to stay together?” Even when stories are constructed to help us do this, “Never assume people understand your message the first time” (34). Personal stories by leaders will foster stronger ties between the leader, the team and the team members and contribute to a vision of the future (which leaders should select from their members). In our organizations we tend to focus on problems and the lack of resources, but not “Here’s what [we] could look like. How do we get there? (38)” Building teams means enabling trust, support and mutual respect, which are the “cornerstones for effective teams” (41). The authors feel that heartfelt, genuine and honest stories are the key to team building, with team members sharing their stories to show that everyone has something of value to contribute. Further, with any story there has to be ample time given to reflect and debrief on it, especially if we expect the participants to change their perspective.

Chapter four, by Lori Silverman, puts the claim about stories very clearly: You get what you give: leadership in action through stories.

Silverman’s main claim is that “When people remember a story, they remember its intent” (47). She relates how one supervisor mentors more than a hundred associates a year–supervisors and VPs. He also mentors employees through stories. This is because “Using carefully selected stories in mentoring allows leaders to learn from others’ life experiences” (50). However, to use stories there must be an organizational culture without a lot of fear, not one that is excessively hierarchical. Their model on communicating strategic information is to identify the message, select and develop a story that reinforces it, determine when and where to tell it and then solicit feedback on the message through practice (53–54). This asks us to consider the question of what story best makes our point. Stories can be practiced in small groups to identify their main ideas. This suggests that the storytelling process should be formalized and taught to leaders.

We can ask: What system is in place in SIL or affiliated organizations to ensure mentoring? What would a mentoring audit show in our organizations? Would it find that each leader gets (and gives) training each year and story telling is integrated into the training? Would we find an organization that creates a culture that supports stories and attaches it to key business issues?

Chapter five by Denise Lee asks: Are we on track? How stories impact project management.

Once again the emphasis is on using stories: communicate vision for a project by incorporating experiences from project managers. Use the stories as a springboard to craft best–practice and lessons–learned stories that will benefit managers and relay information to technical people. Finally, put the stories into print and make them electronically available to the staff. An example of efforts along this line is SPARK (at Waxhaw), which has attempted to catalogue online some of the “best” stories about language projects. Dick Pittman also collected and published stories on the work of SIL around the world.

Chapter six is by Alicia Korten and Karen Dietz and asks: Who said money is everything? Story is the new currency in financial management.

Their proposal uses positive stories to reinforce behaviors to achieve savings and cause shifts in financial mind–set. In WBT and SIL we have stories that are related directly to our financial goals and mission. But we can also ask: “Are the financial policies and allotment of funds widely understood? What are the success stories involving financial help in partnerships?” For example, stories of how donated funds have helped secure additional funds may overcome the mass of data that currently passes as financial information. How much does the average member understand or show any interest in? It may be necessary to hire a professional storyteller to help shape the stories and even enhance them with video clips and music.

In Chapter seven North McKinnon voices a common refrain: We’ve never done it this way before prompting organizational change through stories. Pat Duran begins by giving suggestions on: Using metaphors to craft a common vision. The main points are:

  • Begin by brainstorming the issues and identifying the elements that must change;
  • Identify some metaphor, for example, folk tale, classic journey, etc. that the team can relate to, then study it and make a list of its key elements;
  • Let the team discover and connect situational elements to the metaphor with a play, skit, art, song, etc.

Part II: How organizations are using stories strategically begins with Chapter eight by Michael Margolis: The sky is falling: when difficult times call for a new story.

The author believes that crafting purposeful stories can lead people out of difficult times, which should be encouraging to us. Again, stories help define our corporate culture: What story attracted us to the organization? Can we relate a peak experience of our time with the organization, with examples of a person(s) who demonstrated irresistible leadership? Who is the most passionate person we have met in the organization? What were the attitudes, core values and guiding principles that were used in stories to inspire and guide us? We can tell stories of transitional times, of fear, loss and pain in change by asking the staff to explore and contribute stories that address such issues. Then we need to institutionalize the stories as part of our organization’s culture.*

Chapter nine, Why are we here? Stories that define us is by Evelyn Clark.

Clark encourages us to preserve the history of our organization with archives. We can do this by collecting stories from current leaders and by listening to stories that people want to share. It follows that leaders should be encouraged to relate their personal experiences, feelings and lessons and to retell favorite stories that will keep the legacy alive.

Madelyn Blair in Chapter ten, I can see clearly now: bringing strategy alive through stories, outlines a number of steps for creating a future story:

Blair says that we create a vision or define what needs to happen by involving the team in outlining the issues and formulating the future vision. This has been done in SIL and WBT by their Boards, but how is the story being delivered? What are the stories of the past and present about the vision? What have been the results of the stories to date? What are the stories of the future? Blair suggests that the decision makers have to write the vision of the future as a story and then put it into a publication format. Stories serve more than one need so stories of all kinds should be sought.

Chapter eleven, The fog is lifting: Seeing connections to marketing and marketing research through stories is by Steven Sliverman and Susan Moore.

The authors say that we should consciously make stories a part of how we do our business, including using them prominently in research and marketing. This means getting everyone involved with real stories that are created from personal experience. Another good reminder: Fight the urge to resist stories

Chapter twelve is by Ashraf Ramzy and Alicia Korten and is called What’s in a Name? How stories power enduring brands.

First of all, “For many organizations, the drive to use story in branding emerges at a critical moment–a time of endings and beginnings. A time of renewal” (171). Further, “Developing a brand story can be a powerful experience. It is like alchemy–part science and part art, part logic and part intuition, part reason and part emotion” (177). Our organizations have particular brands–ways they are recognizedÑby insiders and outsiders. We need to know how to connect our heritage with our audience by looking for patterns and themes in the stories we collect and then find creative ways to deliver the story. Administrators must live the story.

Lori Silverman is the author of Chapter thirteen of Part III: Moving stories into and across the organization. Her title is: It pays to be a pioneer: blazing a trail for stories.

Silverman reminds us that executives who tell stories are the most effective and that storytelling falls under the umbrella of leadership. She gives a harsh suggestion: “People want to understand who you are. Put away the PowerPoint! (193)” That won’t happen in SIL or WBT, but there are a number of things that administrators can do: (1) link their stories to the organization’s strategic plan; (2) know their vision and strategies; (3) integrate stories with training; (4) take the initiative by modeling stories; (5) be creative in communicating stories and hand out books and articles on topics; (6) coach people how to communicate stories and elicit stories that focus on strengths and successes; finally, (7) Be patient and allow the process of story to unfold–“If it is right, people will embrace it” (201).

Chapter fourteen is by Jo Tyler and answers the practical question: What do you suggest we do? Finding answers and ideas in research.

Tyler reminds us that story research occurs inside organizations. We should not make a big deal out of storytelling–it is a valid human way of communication. People are already using storytelling in our organizationsÑare they using the process and content well? Learners need a safe environment in which to start and will benefit from hearing stories from others. Tyler claims that short two minute video clips for a story database are helpful in learning from others.

Chapter fifteen, the last one in the book, is a practical model of storytelling by Silverman: There are five sides to every story: Which are you missing?

  1. First of all find stories;
  2. Dig into stories to identify their deeper meaning;
  3. Select stories–but remember that before selecting you have to capture;
  4. Craft the stories and make sure the ending is not fluff;
  5. Embody the stories because telling them is different than being an actor on a stage.

Tell stories about when you felt passionate and alive in your work and notice which stories you tell repeatedly. They should demonstrate your values or the organization’s objectives. If you were to tell only one story, what would it be? You might tell a story of some professional success or of something you believed to be true but at the time was out of line. How did it become accepted (or rejected)?

As I reflected on the contents of the book, it seemed to me that many aspects on storytelling are germane to our organization and its V2025 component:

  • Administration should not only give factual reports, read statistics and watch or give Power Point presentations–they should also tell stories;
  • The phrase “results based management” (and many other current terms) needs illustrative stories;
  • Corporate V2025 stories should be identified and circulated;
  • Members need to hear stories, view stories and tell stories about our vision and values;
  • The most important stories, in terms of impact, are best told by the cultural participants and vernacular speakers;
  • Many stories are incomplete–we should be careful not to judge the success or lack of it too quickly;
  • We look for idols and heroes (and heroines) in our stories;
  • Stories appeal to a wide range of recruits so they need stories from a wide range of projects and programs;
  • Stories attract donors so they must not only be well–told, but they must be true. We cannot operate as a business model and, as some do, have relative ethics.

Review and comments by Karl J. Franklin, December 2006.

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