What’s Your Story?

I read an interesting article from The New Yorker this weekend courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily. At the time it was only of personal interest to me, but as it banged around my brain I realized it obviously had an application to customer and personnel relations as well.

Malcolm Gladwell writes a review of Why? by Charles Tilly which “sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” According to the book, much of what we say to others depends on our relationship with them and the intent behind our statement. Many times what harms our relationships with others is the use of formula responses rather than telling our story.

An example Gladwell uses is a child telling his mother that his brother has taken a toy. The mother uses the formula response “Don’t Be A Tattletale.” However, Gladwell points out, mom doesn’t hesitate to “tattle” to dad about their son’s behavior. Nor would she tell her husband not to tattle if he complained about someone at the office. If the son tells his story to a friend, it is accepted and indeed might strengthen his relationship with his friend in their continuing dislike of the evil brother.

Gladwell also cites an example Charles Tilly gives in relation to marriages.

The husband who uses a story to explain his unhappiness to his wife-“Ever since I got my new job, I feel like I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time for us”-is attempting to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage, he’ll say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” He switches to a convention.

Like the mother who doesn’t deny that her son has been wronged but just wants to bring an end to the interaction, use of convention can erode a relationship with patrons and organization personnel. A box office clerk who tells a ticketholder that they can’t exchange or refund the ticket because “it is policy” is an example of harmful use of rote. Of course an expansive explanation might not be constructive either if your reason for the policy is “if we let you do it, everyone else will want to do it too.” Trying to elicit sympathy by explaining that your poor venue doesn’t have the resources to process both sales and exchanges for everyone will probably just result in a conspiratorial “don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone” or a plea to make a singular exception.

There probably isn’t a generally useful and constructive story to tell customers when refusing to exchange tickets. Tilly’s book points out though that you won’t use the same story or social convention with everyone. We all know the no refunds or exchanges rule isn’t absolute when it comes to long time subscribers or big donors and other people with whom we have established a relationship. In fact, when it comes to ticket refunds, it is the ticket holder, not the organization that is most often using stories to gain empathy from a shared experience– death in the family, mechanical failure or perhaps weather related complications.

The workplace offers even more opportunities for employing harmful conventions. Mantras of there being no budget for a project (often belied by senior people having things implemented), implication that you are a prole and aren’t smart enough to understand and use of buzzwords/phrases like “paradigm,” “synergy” and “work smarter, not harder” can have an alienating effect. These are pretty obvious examples so the challenge is to be aware of what subtler things are creeping into your everyday use.

Though it sounds like it, I am not specifically championing political correctness and being nicer to your audience members. There are plenty of other books and articles you can read on those subjects. In fact, if you read the article, you will note that telling your story can be far more manipulative than spouting stock phrases.

What I am attempting to be a proponent of, (along with using your story powers for good), is showing the sincere attempt to maintain/repair your relationships with your constituents. Practice open book management. Involve staff in decisions and in helping to create the organizational story. Instead of trying to get funding by mentioning how the arts improve math and science scores, find stories that illustrate this fact or other improvements to one’s life that the arts bring. Someone once told me “people don’t give money to organizations, they give money to people.” Yeah, its a rote convention, but it is applicable in this case because donors are more apt to give to people they trust and can believe will use their money well.

Until this moment I failed to make the connection, but a great example of the potency of stories can be found today on Adaptistration. Drew points out that there has been a lot of conversation on some of his recent entries well past the posting date. Two of the entries he cites (and an earlier one here with a long discussion that he didn’t) are all from his Take A Friend to the Orchestra series. I have been reading his blog for a long time and have never seen so many comments on entries, much less on such a concentration of entries as on the TAFTO ones. I really think this is simply because the entries told stories with which people could identify and then spurred discussion and debate. The conversations would have probably been longer if the entry appeared on a discussion board rather than a blog, the format of which is not terribly conducive to prolonged debate.

The third entry Drew cited today was not related to TAFTO but rather executive compensation. Normally, it might not be the topic of lengthy discussion except that it revisited the fairly well-known (among orchestra people and Adaptistration readers), long discussed topic of former Philadelphia Orchestra Executive Director Joe Kluger and his slightly controversial salary along with some contemplation of what his successor will/should be paid. Kluger’s resignation was announced a year ago. Yet, the story is apparently fresh and powerful in people’s minds and will provide a lens through which to view the Philadelphia Orchestra under the tenure of his replacement.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “What’s Your Story?”

  1. Good points Joe, especially about the inherent differences between the types of online discussion enabled by blogging comments as opposed to discussion boards. Each has their strengths and as soon as I find a way to include some links to recent comments in the RH Nav bar at Adaptistration, I’m hoping readers will be able to track issues for a little longer.

    In a perfect virtual world, it would be great to have blog comments lead to a discussion board for further discussion, but overseeing something like that is more time than I have at the moment!

    Once that NEA grant comes in maybe I’ll be able to hire a discussion board moderator (I believe in the tooth fairy too). Regardless, I love the fact that the variety of online forums available to interconnect allow individuals across the globe to have a greater number of connection points than before.


Leave a Comment