Let Me Tell You A Story

Crafting Fiction in an Elite Business School

By Michael Kouklakis,  Director – Department of Languages & Cultures. As an educational practitioner interested in utopian praxes, Michael strives to create, develop or encourage the emergence of transformative, meaningful and significant learning experiences in collaborative settings with students and colleagues alike.

To my knowledge we are the only business school in the world that compels an entire incoming class of approximately four hundred students to write an original work of fiction in English. In this respect, short story writing in a business school environment is a highly innovative pedagogical initiative – all the more so when situated in the educational landscape of the French Grandes Écoles system. Launched in 2008 by ESSEC’s Department of Languages & Cultures1, the short story contest will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year and will revolve around the theme of magic.

The importance of storytelling

Ever since we acquired the capacity for cognitive thinking, we have recounted the world to each other in various forms. We have been contemplating the stars above, explaining thunder and lightning and things that go bump in the night, telling tales that make us laugh and cry, consoling each other trying to understand and come to terms with the reasons our loved ones disappear. The narratives we carry within us and communicate to one another assuage our fears and express our desires which form the basis of all our myths and religions. They not only help create and reinforce the ties that bind our social fabric but also help us find our place in the universe. Storytelling is a fundamentally human endeavour.

What’s a short story contest doing in a Business School?

The literature on the importance and relevance of storytelling in the professional world in general and for businesses and managers in particular is abundant. The Harvard Business Review regularly publishes articles that expound upon the virtues and mechanisms of good storytelling. Titles such as Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, Storytelling That Moves People, The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool, How to Tell a Great Story, are just a few telling examples of this phenomenon in business academia. We can also find such examples in more generalist publications such as Science and The Atlantic. In an article entitled, The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn the universality of storytelling across cultures and time is underlined. This is also echoed in The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling – Why, throughout human history, have people been so drawn to fiction?. We learn that narratives may have developed as an evolutionary survival mechanism and that they are a way of ordering the universe and providing meaning to our lives – a “form of existential problem-solving”.

Student reactions and perceptions

When first-year students are exposed to the plethora of research and plentiful Ted Talk playlists, they are often quite surprised to discover the variety of angles from which storytelling is approached, the seriousness with which it is considered and its implications in real-life situations – business or otherwise. From an examination of dramatic structures – referencing Aristotle’s, Poetics or Freytag’s pyramid – to neurobiology and the role of the neurochemical oxytocin to the importance of empathy and its practical implications in marketing, selling, fundraising, management and effective leadership, the multiplicity of perspectives and eclectic approaches to the study of storytelling is evident.

Based on the quantitative and qualitative returns we have amassed over the years, short story writing at ESSEC is considered a largely positive experience. Most students appreciate the opportunity afforded to them to develop their creative potential by imagining and structuring an original work of fiction around a particular theme. However, some students do remain skeptical (a few even downright hostile) to this approach for a variety of reasons ranging from the perceived immediate usefulness of this exercise, to the high esteem they hold their previous rigorous, formal training in preparatory classes to a cultural perception of creative writing as something either infantile or reserved only for literary or artistic types. Grégoire Ladrange, a former laureate of the ESSEC Short Story Awards, adeptly described the cultural reticence prevalent in France to democratizing short story writing in a very eloquent speech delivered in 2012. Despite coming from a literary background, he lamented the fact that he had never had a single creative writing class. Not one. Surprisingly, the only time he was ever asked to construct an original work of fiction was during his first year at ESSEC.

We are now in our tenth year of short story writing at ESSEC. Every year, we publish a book entitled simply, A Collection of Short Stories, comprised of the works that were shortlisted and an awards ceremony is organized to recognize and celebrate the creativity and excellence of our student writers. It has become a mainstay of the department’s pedagogical activities and a source of pride for those who contribute to its continued success. There are many more tales to be told…

The idea of a short story contest was first suggested by my friend and former colleague Jason Hathaway who was one of the department’s Teacher Managers in charge of English for the Global BBA program. It became an operational reality thanks to the steadfast effort and organizational skills of Greg Sayer (former Teacher Manager in charge of English for the Grande École) and unwavering support of Keith Surridge who was the Director at that time. As with any collective endeavour of this scope, the continuous support of the pedagogical team who prepare students by encouraging them to recount meaningful, powerful narratives and who actually read the stories, the participation of an external jury – Meganne Fogarty Hover – to determine the winners and provide a thought-provoking preface and of course – most importantly – the energy and creative forces of our students without whom none of this would be possible, have been paramount to its longevity and success.