Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Classic stories

Classic stories are drawn from the great body of tradition handed down over centuries within and between countries and cultures. They tend to be metaphorical and universal, so it is important to create a clear frame when using them. It is also possible to change elements within them in order to adapt them to the purpose you have in mind.

Many business narratives work well because they are about contemporary issues: things that have happened directly to the person telling the story, and events and relationships which impinge directly on the listeners. However, stories from the past have the cachet of wisdom and time-honoured truth. They add gravitas and weight to the teller, and also distance the audience from information so they can think about the messages more dispassionately, without feeling directly threatened.

Many classical stories about leadership portray leaders with qualities considerably more subtle and with a greater breadth of vision than many of today’s process-driven, bottom-line-obsessed managers. Organisations do not only exist to create profit; their true aim is to create wealth, and that means the generation of social, cultural and intellectual capital.

Requirements

  • Clear frame
  • Edit, edit, edit: stay with the essentials, but keep the timeless or metaphorical quality.
  • Keep the purpose of the story clearly in mind.
  • Allow the metaphorical content to sit with audience: let them work it out for themselves.
Example

The new archery champion was very good indeed. Technically excellent, he could hit his targets all day. He’d fire an arrow, and split it down the middle with his next. Confidently, he challenged a Zen master to a contest. The monk simply smiled and beckoned the champion to follow.

He followed the monk into the high mountains where they came to a deep ravine. An old rotting log spanned the chasm. The monk stepped onto the slippery, moss covered log and selected a distant boundary post. Swaying as the trunk moved under his weight, he fired straight and true into the centre of his target. Lightly, he stepped off the treacherous trunk and invited the champion to compete. But the champion froze as he gazed in terror into the deep abyss. He couldn’t even step on the log, let alone fire his arrow.

‘You have much skill with your bow,’ said the monk, ‘but very little skill with the mind that lets the arrow loose’.