A few weeks ago I was in Edinburgh, having a cup of coffee with a fellow-performer at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, when she asked me a familiar question:
“You mean you actually earn a living as an organisational storyteller?”
I nodded, waiting for what usually comes next. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Why on earth would people in business be interested in storytelling?”
I would like to pretend that I quelled her evident puzzlement with a convincing, well-reasoned answer but the truth is that my mind was already elsewhere, anticipating our performance of the Odyssey later that evening. Instead, I mumbled something perfunctory about stories being the primary way that people make sense of their worlds and that smart leaders know that nothing really changes unless the stories that give meaning and significance to our lives also change.
That was the best I could come up with in two minutes but having spent a decade as both a storytelling performer and as a consultant working with story and narrative in all sorts of organisations, I really should have remembered that the best answer would have been a story.
I could have told her about the time a colleague of mine used a traditional African story with the board of a global energy company to help them consider the long-term impact of a potential oil and gas exploration project. After several days of discussions informed by the story, they decided that the social and environmental risks were too high and the project did not proceed.
Stories can open up the moral dimensions of business decisions. They can help us imagine the wider and longer term consequences of our actions. Good stories offer rich glimpses of alternative futures so that we can make more generative and sustainable choices today.
Or perhaps I could have told her about the time I coached a former “captain of industry” whose new departmental colleagues in Whitehall were finding it difficult to understand the reasons for this late career change and were somewhat distrustful of his motives. It turned out that the roots of his decision went all the way back to his childhood memories of the deprivation that surrounded him in post-war London. The day after he told this simple heart-felt story to guests at a Guildhall dinner, people across the whole department were repeating it with a dawning realisation of why he had joined them and what he stood for.
Telling authentic personal stories (not self-aggrandising myths) can help us get in touch with what really matters to us. These stories tap into the values of our “bigger selves”. They demand that we act from a more human and humane view of the world and they support us in doing so.
I could have told her any number of stories about the difference it makes when people in business really pay attention to the stories they tell and the stories they listen to. I call such conscious meaning-making through stories, Narrative Leadership. It demands both courage and vulnerability: a willingness to be seen for who we really are and to risk being changed by what others tell us.
Storytelling is the oldest and most natural form of human communication. We can all do it – in fact we spend most of our waking hours telling anecdotes and stories to each other whether or not we are aware of it. Why? Perhaps because at some level we know that exchanging information and argument will only engage our critical faculties. Whereas a good story also has the capacity to stimulate our imaginations and stir our hearts.
So, rather than try to offer you any more reasons why storytelling is essential for anyone – in business or not – who wants to change the world, here is a wee story that I find helpful to tell myself regularly. You might want to share it wherever you think it is most needed.
I once heard that the best way to catch monkeys is by putting a morsel of food under a hollowed out half-coconut shell staked to the ground. A small hole is made in the shell, just large enough for the monkey to reach through and grab the bait underneath. The monkey clenches its fist round the food and, overcome by greed, cannot remove its hand. If it refuses to release its prize, the monkey will be caught.
Mmmmm. Ring any bells?
[Re-posted from The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog 6th December 2011]