The power of storytelling drives Stanford's BiblioTech conference
Silicon Valley business leaders and humanities scholars emphasize the economic value of narrative at a career forum that aims to bring skills of humanities PhDs to the corporate world.
A marketing executive turned venture capitalist, prolific author and frequent public speaker, Geoffrey Moore has fully leveraged the communication and analytical skills he learned as a humanities student.
Moore's academic background (a doctorate in medieval English literature from the University of Washington and a bachelor's degree in American literature from Stanford) might not fit the profile of the typical Silicon Valley success story, but he's the first to argue that his career shouldn't be an anomaly.
In fact, as Moore told an audience at Stanford last month, the rapidly evolving digital world may be "enabled by science, technology, engineering and math," but it is "activated by the humanities."
Talking to a crowd at the BiblioTech conference, designed to connect liberal arts PhDs with Silicon Valley employers, Moore specifically referenced the power of the narrative.
From product design to entrepreneurial endeavors, Moore maintained that storytelling lies at the heart of nearly every aspect of business.
"In the economy, narrative holds the power to create wealth, create jobs, create a tax base and to support non-wealth-producing activities," he said.
Enter the humanities PhD, ready to research, write, synthesize and analyze, all skills that are essential to masterful storytelling.
These skills, Moore asserted, are "ordinary in the academy, but amazing in the economy."
A business adviser to numerous companies, including Cisco, Microsoft and Yahoo, Moore explained: "You design and build products around use cases. Use cases are fictional narratives about how someone could benefit from this product, and engineers actually specify and design highly specific outcomes from use cases."
And, Moore emphasized, "If you do not give an engineering team a use case, you will get an unusable product."
Moore was speaking to an audience full of Stanford humanities doctoral candidates who came to the conference, titled "Take Hold of the Future," to learn how they might parlay their specialized skills in non-academic careers.
The conference marked the third such event hosted by the BiblioTech program, which was established to promote the value of humanities doctoral research and training in the private sector.
Industry runs on narratives
BiblioTech founding director Anaïs Saint-Jude, who has a PhD in French literature from Stanford, said the program "began as a conversation and has become a community."
BiblioTech programming, she said, "opened the conversation about the value that humanities PhDs can bring to industry." Among humanities scholars and industry leaders , BiblioTech "has become a place to go for exceptional talent and a stimulating exchange of ideas," she said.
At a time when tenure-track positions in the humanities are waning across the country, Saint-Jude said that Moore "sent the right message about how humanities PhD training in narrative is just what private industry needs."
Great books can be thrilling, but, Moore said, "there are many, many literary experiences that come from all aspects of life."
Moore described narrative as "omnipresent" in his business dealings.
"Marketing is narrative," he said. "Marketing is a story about your life and this product and how they might intersect to create a happy ending."
A venture capitalist who invests in high-risk start-up companies, Moore routinely listens to product pitches that are "based entirely on fictional scenarios." With little other information to go on, he has to evaluate the presentation on "the quality of the storytelling."
Moore identified "the four C's" of the digital universe – computing, communication, content, collaboration – noting, "As teachers and scholars, humanities PhDs are amply skilled in three out of four of those areas."
He said PhD grads would have to give up the specialized "word hoard" of their humanities expertise and be open to adopting the lingo of a different realm.
Storytelling bridges the divide
Shortly after Moore's talk, humanities doctoral candidates had the chance to showcase their storytelling skills. During a "PhD Pitch Competition," five presenters each had three minutes to pitch their dissertation project to Silicon Valley business leaders, including Moore.
In a conference session titled "PhDs in Business: Stories from the Field," eight humanities PhDs shared how their academic training has influenced their work in the business realm.
Bradford Harris is a PhD candidate in history at Stanford and executive vice president and co-founder of the beverage company Xumma Cola.
His dissertation examines the development of synthetic materials engineering, such as plastics in the early 20th century, "as a response to 'resource anxiety,' or what we might today understand as sustainability concerns," he said.
"In my academic work, I hone my skills as a communicator and translator of ideas by writing about the history of product research and development," Harris said.
Harris said that he uses those same skills "and some actual historical lessons learned from my research to tell the story of our product to potential clients and customers."
Ilja Gruen, who received his doctorate in Slavic languages and literatures from Stanford, also finds his academic training useful in business. After he received his degree, he said he identified two main areas where he could apply his skills: education and research. "And neither of these areas is necessarily limited to academia," he said.
Now a managing partner of the Silicon Valley Innovation Center, Gruen said his job is to "help people from different countries understand how this community of entrepreneurs, academics, investors and visionaries works together, what makes it so successful and how it can be 'translated' into other regions."
Videos of all the conference presentations will soon be available on the BiblioTech website.
For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.