Customer Reviews: The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative
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Those who have read Denning's The Springboard and/or Squirrel Inc. already know that he specializes in knowledge management and organizational storytelling. In this volume, he develops his core concepts in much greater depth, acknowledging his high regard for Peter Senge's vision of the Total Learning Organization as delineated in his pioneer volume, The Fifth Discipline. Briefly, in it Senge suggests that there are five separate but interrelated "disciplines": building a Shared Vision which enables an organization to build a common commitment to the same long-term goals; formulating Mental Models which guide, inform, and sustain creativity and innovation; encouraging and supporting Team Learning; Personal Mastery of certain skills which enable an individual to learn and understand more and thus perform at a higher level of competence; and finally, Systems Thinking which establishes a holistic view, both of one's organization and of the marketplace in which it pursues success.

In his Introduction to this book, Denning asserts that "the best way to communicate with people you are trying to lead is very often through a story. The impulse here is practical and pedagogical. [The Leader's Guide to Storytelling] shows how to use storytelling to deal with the most difficult challenges faced by leadership today." Denning wholly agrees with Senge that a learning organization is an environment "where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together." However, while agreeing on the importance of "systems thinking" as a way of looking at systems as a whole that will enable people to see complex chains of causation and so solve complex problems, Denning has three concerns which he shares on page 253. By the time his reader arrives at that point in the narrative, she or he may well share the same concerns.

My purpose in this brief commentary is to focus on what I consider to be Denning's key points as he explains why and how storytelling is often the best way for leaders to communicate with those whom they are trying to lead. What he offers is a cohesive and comprehensive system. These are the core principles, as discussed thoroughly in Chapters 3-10:

1. Select and then tell the story which is most appropriate for the given leadership challenge.

2. Tell that story with style, truth, thorough preparation, and effective delivery.

3. Select a narrative pattern based on the primary objective: to motivate others to action, to build trust in you, to build trust in your organization, to transmit your values, to get others working together, to share knowledge, to "tame the grapevine," or to create and share your vision.

Each reader will appreciate Table 1.1. (on page 18) which summarizes key points for each of the eight different narrative patterns discussed separately in Chapters, 3-10. (Additional Tables are provided later in the narrative whenever appropriate.) At the end of each chapter in Part Two, Denning thoughtfully includes a "Template" which poses a set of questions to be addressed when, for example, crafting a "springboard story." Here's the first of ten questions: "What is the specific change in the organization or community or group that you hope to spark with the story?" Then in Part Three (Chapters 11 and 12), Denning explains how to put it all together by using narrative effectively, both to transform an organization and to become an interactive leader.

Of special interest to me Denning's discussion (in the final chapter) of what he calls "Interactive, Tolstoyean" leadership and its relation to other theories in terms of leadership as a trait, as a skill, as a style, as situational, as motivation, and as transformation. This discussion serves as an appropriate conclusion to his book, one in which Denning has spelled out "specific, identifiable, measurable, trainable behaviors that can be used to achieve the goals of transformational leadership."

Storytelling really is a performance art. Some master the requisite skills. Most don't. Denning offers no guarantees but does claim that those who consistently use the narrative tools he has provided will acquire new capabilities. Specifically, to communicate more effectively who they are and what they stand for, to be more attentive to the world as it is now, to speak the truth and do it well, to make their values explicit and take actions which are consistent with those values, to listen to the world and be receptive to innovation. Those who possess these new capabilities will attract the interest, then earn and sustain the trust and respect of those whom they may be privileged to lead.

If this is the kind of leader you aspire to be, Denning's book awaits you...eager to be of substantial assistance.

For whatever reasons, only in recent years has there been an awareness and appreciation of the importance of the business narrative. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Annette Simmons' The Story Factor, Doug Lipman's Improving Your Storytelling, and Storytelling in Organizations co-authored by John Seely Brown, Denning, Katarina Groh, and Laurence Prusak.
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on January 13, 2007
I'm only in Chapter 2, and it is already clear that Denning makes a lot of great points in this book. It is most definitely worth every penny and more!

My biggest complaint is that the book is written like a 19th century philosophy treatise! Philosophy was one of my majors in college, so I am well-aware of the agony in reading philosophical text - instead of getting straight to the point, it meanders and loses the reader after every third sentence! In the first chapter of this book, Denning goes on and on about things you could care less about for over 20 pages. I had a sigh of relief when he finally put down all his points in the chapter in just two pages at the end of the chapter!

When I was reading in the plane, I thought at first the reason for my agony was that I was tired. However, each time I got bored with Denning's book, I switched to a novel, and I was not tired anymore! Hey, wait a minute! I thought this was supposed to be a book on storytelling! Why then was it written like an obscure Ph.D. dissertation? You don't believe me? See for yourself. Here's a sampling of the torture:

"Second, the apparent paradox of zero improvement in performance from teams in organizations overall - along with extraordinary gains reportedly made in specific instances - reflects the fact that teams are found at both ends of the effectiveness spectrum."

Now do you believe me!? :)

I'm not saying the entire book looks like the glob you see above. My point is simply that there are numerous sentences here that will require you to pause, say "Huh?", and then reread. So, if you are a speed reading junkie like me, please be very patient! Speed reading is not recommended.

Despite the stated criticism, Denning makes really good points in this book. The book has my complete endorsement due to the great points. Besides, as my philosophy professors used to tell me in college, if you don't have the patience to tread through the gobbledygook of philosophical treatises, then maybe you're not scholarly enough to major in philosophy!
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Let me tell you a story.

I read and review books about leadership in hopes that people will find the books that will help them do the right thing.

Usually, I don't succeed in finding good resources as often as I succeed in finding resources that don't add anything to what Peter Drucker first said 50 or 60 years ago.

I recently heard Steve Denning tell a 15 minute story about how he used one brief anecdote to develop the support he needed to help transform the World Bank from a lagging lender to poor countries into a premier source of knowledge management. I was transfixed by that story and immediately ordered this book in which that story appears.

In The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, I learned that we often go into hypnotic trances when we hear such a story. I must admit that I did.

In fact, I didn't even understand why the story worked at the World Bank until I read the book. Here's what happened. Steve Denning had been given an opportunity to speak on behalf of knowledge management for 10 minutes in front of some of the World Bank's senior executives. What can you do in 10 minutes? You can tell an arresting story that stimulates the hearers to fill in their own solutions that advance your agenda. And that's what Steve Denning did. Two leaders turned that anecdote into their idea of what the World Bank should do in knowledge management. The rest is history.

While the story could have been built up into hours of interesting details, I found that the "minimal" version affected me much like Lincoln's Gettysburg address does. I felt the story throughout my body. I lived that moment with Steve Denning. And I understood both his point about story telling and about why brevity works better in business.

The strength of this book comes in Steve Denning's experience in changing major agendas in large organizations. Although the book's title says the book is about storytelling, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling is actually about a new style of collaborative management that goes beyond the familiar boundaries of theories X, Y and Z. The notion is to invite a collaboration to achieve more worthwhile directions as the main focus of an organization.

While other authors, such as Senge, Hamel and Christensen, argue for innovation to hide in the wings until it is ready to take center stage, Steve Denning persuasively argues that innovation can take the stage before it has fulfilled its potential . . . and accomplish more as a result.

Everyone who reads this book will admire the moral legitimacy of that position. It's the viewpoint of a winner, rather than someone who is afraid to take on the toughest challenges.

I intend to recommend that my university begin offering a course based on this book for all of its business and NGO graduate students.

While most books about storytelling are strong on the storytelling subject (such as Annette Simmons' The Story Factor), The Leader's Guide to Storytelling puts stories into an organizational context in ways that only an organizational master can do. Most leadership books are written by professors and consultants, and the work shows that they haven't done much leading. The Leader's Guide to Storytelling is leading as described by a leader who did it from a weak position . . . the most important perspective in any organization. Those who are close to the problems and opportunities always see both well. How do they engage the rest of the organization? Steve Denning has the answers in his detailed chapters on what stories to tell, how to tell those stories and his thoughts on what leaders should do.
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on September 20, 2006
As a training developer I've been interested in the use of stories in business for several years so I was excited to read Denning's book. However, the content was literally not worth carrying the weight of the book back home from a business trip. The book is meandering, repititive and poorly edited. It's one long train of thought loosely organized in a trail of chapter and section headings. Most of the book is filled with business cliche's and has little do to with how to construct and use a useful story. I don't find this surprising since I didn't find Denning to be a very good storyteller, nor were many of choice of other stories interesting. He has two "stories" from IBM executives which are really just three paragraphs of buzz words strung together. Denning has a very loose definition of the term "story." Finally, I totally picked up on the self-congratulatory vibe mentioned in an earlier view. It's thinly veiled in light self-deprecation. In reality, it seems more likely Denning is a rather lucky man who took a failed career at the World Bank and turned it into a couple of books. He views his work in knowledge management there as a triumphant turnaround in the face of "political" sidetracking, but I didn't get the sense he knew anything specific about knowledge management.
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on November 30, 2009
A book about storytelling that was not well told. Although this one came highly recommended, I was personally put off
by the fact that it was dryly written and not that engaging. When a book reads like a textbook and becomes a chore to get through,
I put it down.
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on October 21, 2006
In the weeks since I first read Denning's book, I have had to make a number of appearances. In one case, I was invited by the head of my department at my alma mater to speak to graduating students. Others were either speeches made in the course of marketing my services or training workshops. My deliberate incorporation of story telling made even normally dry technical subjects come alive. And in the case of the talk to graduating students, I like to think I must have touched a life or two.

Denning shows you how to use stories to ignite action, build trust in your person and brand your organisation, transmit values, encourage collaboration, share knowledge, deal with harmful rumours and share your vision. Fusing all these story telling patterns into your leadership style will help you become an involved, interactive and transformational leader.
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on April 1, 2010
The title of the book implies to me a very specific topic: how to tell good stories, for better leadership, in a business setting. The first two chapters warm up nicely to that idea. I started off rather encouraged. Unfortunately that appears to be where the author reached the end of his storytelling knowledge because a large portion of the book veers off into leadership styles, branding, group dynamics, etc. He connects it all with the word "story," and while I understand how a brand can be, metaphorically, a company's "story", its really not storytelling. Its a lot of meandering chapters using the word "story" in ways that aren't particularly insightful and distracting from the main topic. Really I blame the editor or the publisher. Its bad enough that they should have caught it and given him some advice. Look elsewhere for storytelling techniques.
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on October 10, 2007
This is a very scholarly book that really sheds light what it's like to be a business leader. Then Denning shows how storytelling can be part of an effective leadership tool box.

Each chapter ends with a couple of pages of great instruction--how to craft and deliver the story that chapter was devoted to. I found the table on page 18 to be a helpful overview of the eight types of stories, their uses and what reactions they should elicit from the audience.

However, business speakers who want to add stories to their presentations TODAY need to work with a presentation coach. In much less time, and with much more fun, your coach will get you to actually be a storyteller, not just think about telling stories.
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Stephen Denning has written a carefully reasoned, thought-provoking study of the use of storytelling as a powerful tool for leadership and innovation. He challenges traditional business approaches to management and persuasion, such as relying on analytic thinking, and facts and figures to convince an audience. Instead, Denning says, you can use well-scripted, well-constructed stories to achieve all your leadership goals, both inside and outside of your company. He carefully explains how to tell purposeful stories, and he even provides useful templates at the end of each chapter. The book is much too in-depth to be a handy "how to" manual; in fact, it is more of an enjoyable intellectual exercise because Denning weaves practical instruction within pages of theory. We recommend this book to leaders who want to extend their persuasive powers by learning to tell purposeful, impassioned stories.
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on April 23, 2006
The author has some good information that could have been communicated in 75 pages, but he chose to bury the valuable nuggets in an ocean of words and self congratuatory hype. Don't bother with this book.
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