Using storytelling guidelines to simplify communication

by Jill Crawley-Low
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

Recently in the University of Saskatchewan Library, a Sustaining Leadership Learning session on storytelling in an organizational setting was offered. During the half-day workshop, we learned the ways in which stories can be effective when introduced in a work setting to share understanding and connect people on a personal as well as on an organizational level. The role of storytelling in organizations includes sparking people to action; transmitting values; fostering collaboration; leading people into the future; and other good things (Denning, The leader’s guide to storytelling, 2011). We learned about a variety of storytelling structures that can be used to develop a story for almost any occasion. On a basic level, the key elements in building stories include purpose, idea, and content. If storytelling does, in fact, improve communication in the workplace then there are lots of opportunities for this practice in academic libraries.

For instance, developing a comprehensive collections strategy is a complex task with many facets and underlying assumptions, and, however appealing a complex discussion about collections’ issues may be for librarians, it is likely not so enticing to our community. So, taking advice from Natalie Babbit the author of Tuck Everlasting who said, “Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple”, we would break down the collections strategy task into manageable segments and use the storytelling methodology to focus the information to be shared and make it simple, yet meaningful. Still not convinced?

Taking only one aspect of the collections strategy, i.e., the responsibilities of liaison librarians and faculty in building collections that support research and teaching, the purpose, idea and content components guiding development of a story can be applied as follows:

Purpose – could the learnings from the storytelling session be applied to tell stories that would create transparency and create better relationships between the library and the university community?
Idea – since collections work is a passion for many librarians, could stories be used to create some excitement and understanding around a collections strategy that would be informative and interesting for the casual reader from the university community?
Content – with the intention to communicate key pieces of information, what kinds of information would be included?

If the purpose and idea are to share information about collections and enhance relationships with our academic colleagues, then the next step is to identify the content that supports the generation of a story. For this example there are a number of sources: an in-house document that outlines the potential duties of liaison librarians; the library literature that contain examples of best practice in liaison librarian responsibilities; liaison librarians can be asked to identify core values in their work, and also how they interact with faculty in supporting research and teaching; conversely, faculty can be interviewed to find out how they interact with liaison librarians, and which library services are most useful in supporting their work; and lastly discipline-specific characteristics can be included. Once the content has been gathered and the message is clear, four elements for impactful storytelling according to Denning (2011) can be applied to develop the style, tone, and final shape:

– write as if you are talking to one individual, be focused, simple, clear
Truth – tell the truth as you see it
Preparation – choose the shape of the story and stick to it
Delivery – be comfortable in your own style, know your audience, connect with your audience.

The result is a story about the relationships between faculty and liaison librarians in building collections that support research and teaching. Following the impactful story development guidelines, it would be jargon-free, focussed on users, transparent and simple, and it would reveal some of the passion that librarians hold for the work they do. The story might be presented orally in meetings or in casual conversations. However, it would also lend itself to publication on the library’s website reaching a wider audience along with other collections documents. Not all topics can morph into stories, but when we want to communicate on a more personal level, storytelling is a viable option and one we might have overlooked. As Albert Einstein acutely noted, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Denning, Stephen, 2011. The Leader’s guide to storytelling: mastering the art and discipline of business narrative. 2nd rev. ed. Jossey-Bass.
Babbit, Natalie, 2011. Tuck everlasting. Square Fish.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.