Source: Technical Communication Journal | Russel Hirst, University of Tennessee | February 2017
Purpose: To help readers better understand the craft and the rhetorical power of narrative as used in corporate and community settings—and to illustrate strategies that rhetorical storytellers may employ.
Method: This article analyzes storytelling by means of a case study in the art of narrative as used in support of an organization, community, and industry. The organization is Y-12 National Security Complex, which makes parts for America’s nuclear arsenal and does research and production in nuclear materials for medicine, biology, industry, and nuclear energy and propulsion. The community is Oak Ridge, Tennessee and environs. “Industry” references the nuclear industry in Oak Ridge and beyond, including its partnership with the U.S. military. The subject of the case study—the person whose narrative art is here analyzed—is Ray Smith, official historian of Y-12. The material analyzed comes from publications by Smith, notes from interviews with him on multiple occasions, and many sessions of listening to his stories both in person and via recordings (documentaries, presentations available on web sites, etc.).
Results: This study finds that Smith’s stories connected with the Manhattan Project, and the years preceding and succeeding it, constitute a model set of narratives displaying the rhetorical power of storytelling in an organizational setting.
Conclusion: By studying the ways narrative is successfully used in professional settings, we deepen our understanding of rhetorical storytelling as well as our ability to use it. This skill has wide application to contexts of technical and professional communication. It can be used to elevate public opinion about a corporation, community, or industry; to breed confidence among consumers and investors; to construct leadership models for managers; to inspire and motivate employees—and in virtually any other sort of rhetorical enterprise.
Pull up a chair; make yourself comfortable. Let me tell you some stories.
During World War II, my dad was a gunner with an anti-aircraft artillery battalion, the 210th, protecting the American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. The day after graduating from high school, he had volunteered for military service. He married my sweet mom, who was just 17 years old at the time, a month before going overseas. While at Subic Bay, he
worked diligently, during off-duty hours, to build up a little nest egg by crafting and selling metal watchbands. These were in demand because leather watchbands rotted away in that tropical climate. Dad cut his watchbands out of the aluminum fuselages of Japanese planes his battalion had shot down.
McArthur and the other American generals had made plans—Operation Downfall—for a land invasion of Japan, and it’s likely my dad would have been involved in invading the homeland of a fierce Imperial army and a fortified, determined populace. Predicted casualties for Allied forces were in the hundreds of thousands; predicted casualties for the Japanese were in the millions.
But on August 6th and 9th, 1945, America dropped on Japan the most devastating weapons the world had
ever seen, killing and injuring tens of thousands in an instant—and the enemy surrendered. The land invasion
was cancelled. World War II, which had claimed 60 million lives, was over. Dad came home safe to Mom—
and I was born a few years later.
Now that, in short form, is a Hirst family story— connected to a much bigger story. All of us are connected to that bigger story, and we all have our ways of making sense of it, processing it, forming and adjusting our values and feelings in reference to it.
Stories help us do this kind of thing. Cognitive psychologists tell us that hearing and reading stories is a major way in which humans make sense of their world and position themselves in it. We also listen to our own internal narratives about our lived experience, over and over. In our conscious and unconscious minds, we weave stories into a conceptual fabric.1 This ever-expanding tapestry forms, in large measure, our worldview. It thus profoundly influences a host of our cognitive functions, such as our cause-and-effect thinking. Of course, it is not stories alone that weave this tapestry; we also read
statistics, hear reasoned arguments, look at scientific facts, etc.2 But stories loom large in our psyches and influence our thinking and behavior in deep ways.3 This fact has inspired the recent swell of interest in narrative theory in many fields, including literature, sociology, psychology, public relations, management, rhetoric, and technical communication.
Technical communication has always been linked strongly to engineering, industry, and science—and thus to logical, clearly structured, demonstrative discourse.