The art of storytelling

We all tell stories or listen to them. For example, when bringing the children to bed, or at parties or commemorations, in the theatre, when we sit around the campfire or at home on the settee, etc. It’s something universal and it’s a part of every culture. Apart from the fact that stories are fun, they also have a function. Aristoteles pointed out that stories enable people to share their own world with others. By sharing events and experiences with others, we imbue life with sense and meaning, which results in bonding taking place and a ‘collective memory’ being created. Add to this all faith-based stories, classic myths and fairy stories, and you have the foundations on which a culture is based.

The business world also has its own stories. For example about the founder of a business, the initial pioneering phase, when new employees start or when employees leave the company, when an important event occurs, as a means of expressing vision and strategy, etc. These stories all contribute to creating and maintaining a company’s culture and image. Because people’s idea of a company is the sum of the personal experiences and stories they hear or read. And these ‘company stories’ can be consciously created, as demonstrated by the following example.

The day the airline Go (an initiative of British Airways) celebrated its official launch with a special party flight, EasyJet CEO Stelios was also on board, together with a large number of his employees. He had cleverly bought up as many tickets as possible and was now handing out EasyJet tickets to all the other guests, thereby thoroughly spoiling the launch. And EasyJet was making history – the story was on all the front pages the following day.

The power of a good company story is that it inspires, stimulates, clarifies, connects, provides a context, gives focus and gets people taking action. An effective story will create an appropriate atmosphere, evoke associations and add emotion to hard facts and figures. The form of the story ensures that employees and customers retain its message more quickly and that the message ‘sticks’. A few tips are useful here: tell stories that are sincere, possess a personal element (some call this showing ‘vulnerability’), radiate passion and admiration, and contain compliments. It should also be short (between ninety seconds and two minutes), contain just one message, be told in the present tense (as though it’s taking place at the moment you’re telling it) and contain a keyword that is repeated.

In addition to company stories, there’ s a specific genre that’s crucial for coaches and managers: stories that get the listener or reader thinking about themselves or about a particular topic. Read, for example, the following short story and observe what thoughts it evokes in you.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between the two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One has fear of change and the unknown. This results in apathy, lack of direction, failure to act, and missed opportunities. The other loves to embrace opportunities, plan for the future, enjoy what life has to offer, and achieve his goals. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: Which wolf wins? The old Cherokee simply replied: The one you feed.

One of my favourite stories belongs to this genre: ‘Lost Generation’ by Jonathan Reed. This story, which is about our future, is a palindrome. In other words, the story can be read both from top to bottom, and from bottom to top. And in this case the content changes 180 degrees and gains in impact enormously when you switch direction. Read and listen along to this short story (90 seconds). Which future are you a part of?

So stories can be consciously used within a work context. The challenge this time is related to this. Question: which story do you tell your customers and employees? Is it a lengthy business story full of facts and figures? Or is it a short, personal and passionate story that inspires, stimulates, connects and gives focus? Ask other people what they think of your story and how its impact could be intensified. Because ultimately the story will acquire its meaning and do its work in the minds of the others.

Enjoy telling stories!

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