Beware the Bullet Point: Critical Thinking and Well-Told Stories
July 18, 2017 | Karen Nestor
Recently faced with the task of cutting more than 2,000 words from an academic manuscript nearly ready for publication, I recalled my devotion as a young writer and teacher to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. William Strunk shouted at me across the decades: “Omit needless words!” Though I quite admired each word in this paper, needless words began to jump off the page. The authors promised that omitting words leads to “vigorous writing” and I relished the clarity and precision of fierce editing.
But a dilemma emerged from this satisfying task. Strunk and White caution that their dictum does not mean all sentences should be short, but rather that “every word tell.” Do we cut words at our peril if we don’t write and edit based in part on what we are trying to tell? Editing helped me distinguish between needless words and complex or nuanced telling – and my reflection led me to consider the very foundation of Books@Work and the use of literature in the workplace.
At first, some are skeptical of the role literature can play in corporate settings. After all, a novel (or short story or play) can take a long time to make even a single point about human experience. In Hamlet, for example, Shakespeare expends 30,000 words to provide a window on the pitfalls of decision-making. Wouldn’t a short article (or even a PowerPoint presentation) more efficiently summarize the salient factors that produce good or bad decisions for work teams? But what might we miss?
Deep understanding emerges when coworkers read and discuss good literature and ponder an author’s use of words. A well-crafted plot gives readers a way to see themselves in a character’s experiences. Exploring multiple themes illuminates the many ways that people solve problems – alone or with others. A short article might be a convenient read in the workplace, but there’s often more to learn from a well-told story, despite its length.
Books@Work puts this idea into action. In one program, participants at a national healthcare company read Euripides’ plays The Bacchae and Medea. “I thought, ‘Reading a Greek play, I don’t really know what I’m reading,’” one participant said. “[Books@Work] made it completely come alive and I suddenly understood why it mattered to people. It was a really good discussion.” Another added, “I found it so fascinating how their life was no different than our life.” Even though a piece of literature is difficult, there is something very productive about unpacking it and unveiling its relevance – especially when we tackle it as a team.
Business or academic writing follows a different standard. Brevity counts. Being efficient and thorough is crucial. Yet, even in corporations, we might question whether the emphasis on efficiency limits the depth of understanding required for tackling contemporary dilemmas. There’s something to be said for collectively exploring an exhaustive, challenging piece of literature like a Greek play. Aren’t most of the issues we face in the modern workplace exhaustive and challenging? When we tackle a difficult narrative together with our colleagues in a safe space, we practice and hone the critical thinking skills we need when it really counts.
Image: Unknown Artist, Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino, c. 420-425 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons