Sunday, November 22, 2015


By Suzanne Tesselaar

“The only weapons we have in change are words. We can change the world by changing how we talk and listen” - Adam Kahane 

Why the Humans of New York stories went viral, and how you too can make stories work…

It was a hard lesson: the photograph of a beautiful Sudanese woman and an old orthodox Jewish man, should never have been published. The two together, they formed such a striking image of New York's diversity.  That was the moment when Brandon Stanton (31) began his project - photographing 10, 000 New Yorkers. After listening to the story behind the photo, he realized that pictures alone may not tell the full story. "When I put my camera away and the man walked on, the woman cried and told me that this man had just offered her 500 dollar to have sex with him. I than decided I wanted to stand up for women and tell that story" (AD 2015).
Stories give context, they engage and connect, they frame and sequence events. They give meaning and make sense; they are versatile; they are lived.

The power of lived stories
Lived stories are as old as the hills and everyone tells them. They resonate, sometimes they go viral, become contagious and cause ‘social epidemics’. Like Humans of New York, where the image and the stories of individuals enchant us and capture our imagination. They are fun and we all want to be part of it, so we change our behaviour and donate to Stanton's causes, buy the HONY books. I just picked up my copy... We join the social media tribes and sites. And we narrate its stories, in turn influencing the behaviour of those in our own networks.

Social networks and storytelling
Christakis & Fowler (2007) extensively researched the often ignored and under-estimated  power of physical social networks, in which stories and stories about the stories circulate. They used the 6 degrees of separation and 3 degrees of influence;  researching how obesity, smoking, love and happiness spread through networks. Influencing the behaviour of those in our inner circle (18 %), on our friends friends (10 %) and our friend’s friend’s friends (6 %). They term this the 3 degrees of influence (Ibid 2008).
So, initially 10, 000 New Yorker stories have been shared with networks of the storytellers, the readers and ultimately the people that picked up the idea to make their own statement. Like me :-). These HONY stories take on a life of their own, causing the idea to spread like wildfire, covering the globe.  It’s going viral – and Bandon has all of us to thank!

Lived and corporate stories
Lived stories are not prepared. They are told in dialogue between the storyteller and his audience and emerge as they are told (Gabriel 2000). They are usually quite sloppy and have unfinished sentences and verbal tics, which makes them authentic or trustworthy and recognisable.  These small stories or ‘stories of the little men’, as David Boje (2001) calls them, can become contagious. Not the styled, sanitized, edited, made up (or fictional) version of a future situation; often created as corporate stories.
Lived stories can cause counter stories (Tesselaar 2015) which can sabotage organisational change efforts. Lived stories, like a running commentary  -  resonate (Bate 2004), are told and retold and can cause a social epidemic – spread like wildfire (Christakis & Fowler 2010, Gladwell 2000).

Change in organizations
Peter Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline (1990-2006) that people do not resist change. Rather, they resist being changed. In a change intervention lived stories can be used to understand and to bridge the gap between the organization’s structure and culture:
·       Structure, deals with the goals, systems, processes and tasks.  Results can be measured and it follows a somewhat rigid, linear path. Stories emanating here tend to be told in ‘management language’ or jargon and can be designed to be manipulative.
·       Culture, deals with attitude and behaviour, with norms and values. Results are visible but difficult to quantify. Culture is fluid and follows a continuous path.  Culture is shaped and negotiated in lived stories. They are told in a common language of change.
Sharing lived stories with management and leadership enables them to understand the dynamic reality and versatility of their organization.

Co-creating a story of change
Change agents can show, or even better, teach leaders to listen to stories, take them seriously and retell them in the context of change.  Thus, a story of change is co-created, with the themes and language people recognize, relate – to and share.  Such a story (and the story about the creation of the story) will be told and retold as a lived story.  It has the potential of causing a social epidemic in the organization - in the same way that the Humans of New York story does. In a co-created story the “I” story becomes a “we” story (Bate 2004) that will drive the change. These story dynamics, themes, versatility and language are what I research and use in my consultancy practice as interactive interventions in organizations and communities. They exist not only in organizations but also in communities, as demonstrated by the Humans of New York phenomenon.   (And in my social Verbal Vaccine project, but that is a different story...

Author Biography and Contact details
Suzanne Tesselaar is a storytelling consultant, PhD researcher and lecturer. She pioneered storytelling as interactive intervention and co-created this method with some 35 client organizations. With this knowledge she is determined to make a social contribution by research and development of  a ‘verbal vaccine’; A behavioural intervention for health workers, empowering local communities to cause sustainable change and become independent of outside aid.
She is actively looking for sponsors for this project and may be contacted  at:
Twitter: @SuzanneStories
LinkedIn Suzanne L:LinkedIn
Stories of Change Mobile: 0031(0)655357770

Bate, P. (2004) The Role of Story and Storytelling in Organizational Change Efforts, The Anthropology of an Intervention in a UK Hospital, Intervention Research. International Journal on Culture, Organization and Management 1(1): 27-42
Boje, D.M., (2001), Narrative Methods for Organizational & Communication Research, Sage London UK
Christakis N. (2008) Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network
Christakis N. (2010) The hidden influence of social networks, Ted Talk
Christakis N., J. Fowler (2010) Connected, The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape our Lives, HarperCollins London UK
Gabriel, Y. (2000) Storytelling in organizations. Facts, Fictions and fantasies. Oxford University Press NY.
Gladwell, M. (2000) The Tipping Point, How Little Things can make a Big Difference. Abacus, London, UK
Houwelingen C. (2015) Speuren naar unieke types (searching for unique characters) AD/ Algemeen Dagblad 23 October 2015
Senge P. (1990/2006) The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of Learning, Crown Publishing U.S.A.
Stanton B. (2015) Humans of New York Stories, Storytelling. Martin’s Press, NYC USA
Tesselaar S., (2015). Charlie Hebdo Why Je Suis Charlie is such a powerful counter story Communicatie Online, January 20 2015

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