Storytelling: Contagion makes those stories circulate

The Grandfather tells a story, by Albert Anker, ca. 1884.
The Grandfather tells a story, by Albert Anker, ca. 1884.

“When you listen to a good storyteller, you hear the story with your head, heart and soul. You are not a passive listener, you are an active participant”

(Stevenson, Doug. “Never Be Boring Again”, Cornelia Press, 2003)

Although the story recalling the foundation of Hewlett-Packard is an old one, nevertheless it shows us the influence of storytelling and, especially, the role of contagion in its dissemination. The core of the story is that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded their company with an initial capital of $538 in a one-car garage in Palo Alto. The story ignited such a positive feeling that it very quickly became part of business folklore, and not only inspired its employees and customers, but quickly became one of the most popular stories in business literature. The question is how this dissemination worked, rather than why it happened.

Storytelling has long been a part of our social, business, political and religious life, but many of us may ask, what is the process of how stories actually circulate? Even though the current growth in storytelling literature demonstrates its effectiveness as a management communication tool for sharing knowledge, learning, and motivating people, there still remains the question of how this circulation of messages actually works? The answer to this question lies with emotional contagion.

Contagion has been defined as “The spread of a behaviour pattern, attitude, or emotion from person to person or group through suggestion, propaganda, rumour, or imitation” (Hatfield, E.; Cacioppo, J.T.; Rapson, R.L. (1993). “Emotional contagion. Current Directions”. Psychological Science 2: 96–99.)

Georg Schoenewolf defines it as “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behaviour of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioural attitudes” (Schoenewolf, G., 1990. Emotional contagion: Behavioral induction in individuals and groups.’ ‘Modern Psychoanalysis; 15, 49-61)

What does emerge from these definitions is the emotional aspect of contagion. “The phrase “emotional contagion” embodies the idea that humans will synchronize their personal emotions with the emotions expressed by those around them, whether consciously or unconsciously, and thus that an emotion conveyed by one person will become “contagious” to others (Wikipedia).

Consider the following example by Stephen Denning, a former director of the Knowledge Management Unit at the World Bank in Washington. The World Bank Director asked Denning to make a presentation to senior managers at the Bank on the need to expand the scope of the Knowledge Management Unit and to provide his overheads to those who were not present.

The Knowledge Management Unit provided information on the web on a whole range of topics, one of which was medical information. Though it was widely assumed that medical information was available to practitioners anywhere round the globe, Denning analyzed the data and found that this was not the case. He presented his conclusions to the bank directors with the usual power point presentation. The World Bank Director was so impressed with the data that he asked Denning to send the overheads to the regional directors, believing they would inspire the World Bank officers to further develop their medical information service.

Denning waited for their reaction after sending the overheads but nothing happened. He informed the director that as far as he was concerned his presentation overall had been a failure. It had failed to move people. In his next presentation he used the same data and analysis, but rounded off his presentation with the following story:

In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the web site of the Center of Disease Control and got an answer to the question of how to treat malaria. Remember this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it happened in a tiny place 600 km from the capital city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for the World Bank, is that we (the World Bank) are not in it. Imagine if we were. Think what an organization we could become (Stephen Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling …”, Jossey-Boss, 2010).

This story took only one minute to tell. Denning had an immediate reaction to his presentation the second time round; but practically all of the feedback related to this story. The story not only spread to regional managers but across the entire organization, and far beyond its boundaries. Contagion did its work. People were linked up emotionally with the message and identified with it; they had visual images that helped them to build a strong consensus across audiences and, indeed, helped inspire them into action in a common purpose.

Today with internet, Twitter and the mass media, a well crafted corporate story with the right emotional undertones can make an almost immediate impact. Of course, stories must have a central message, be short and relevant, and have that strong emotional appeal that emotional contagion needs. On the other hand, because of our experiences with the worlds of marketing and politics, a certain degree of cynicism has crept into our attitudes towards stories and, indeed, organizational information in general. Many may consider this as ‘black’ propaganda. It calls for a degree of astuteness on the storyteller’s part to counter-act this cynicism in analyzing her audiences’ emotional readiness to accept the message before emotional contagion can do its work.