Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Frames and reframes

Without a frame, information has no meaning. Consider the following situation. Large black rain clouds have gathered and are now partly obscuring the sun. What is the meaning of this situation? We cannot know until we have understood the context – until we put a frame around it.

It could mean a disappointing holiday for a sun worshipper. Or it could mean an excellent time for planting seeds. It might be a disaster for a farmer whose wheat is ripe and ready for harvesting. It might equally be a blessing for a traveller in a waterless desert.

Stories and business narratives work best when they are told in relation to a particular context. For example, let’s imagine that as a manager you are coaching one of your team who has become stuck in an unresourceful state as a result of some past perceived slight or injustice. If the team member appears unable to put it behind him and move on, you might consider sharing the following story. You may prefer to use a more modern version of it, but it is worth considering that the very distance in time and space from the person’s current bogged-down state may be both useful and respectful.

Example

Two monks were on a pilgrimage. They were from a particular order of monks that were forbidden to speak to or touch women. They had no wish to offend anyone, so they kept to the by-ways and lived off the land.

They came to a river which had burst its banks; the land had flooded and the ferry had been washed away. Nevertheless they had to cross that river. They tucked up their habits and began to wade across.

And just at that moment, a woman appeared and begged them to carry her across.

She was dressed in fine clothes and carried an umbrella. Her mission, she said, was urgent otherwise she would not have troubled them.

The younger monk ignored her and looked away. The elder, however, said nothing, but swept her up onto his shoulder and carried her across, putting her down, completely dry, on the other bank.

For the whole of the following hour, as they journeyed on, the younger monk berated the elder, heaping scorn upon his actions, accusing him of betraying the order and his vows. How dare he? How could he? What was he thinking of? What gave him the right to?

Eventually, the monks entered a clearing, and the elder monk stopped and looked square into the eyes of the younger. There was a long moment of silence.

Finally, in a soft and gentle tone, the older monk said: ‘My brother I put that woman down an hour ago. It is you that are still carrying her’.

Here it is the previously-discussed situation of being unable to move on which is the frame that gives the story its power and meaning.

The frame around any story you choose to tell is for you to decide. The meaning of each story will depend upon the context in which you tell it, who you are and who you tell it to.

The best stories are multi-layered and capable of rich interpretation. Some stories, indeed, can contain within them apparently contradictory meanings. That is why framing is so crucial in most contexts. It focuses your audience on the messages you want them to think about.

Reframes

Resonant stories are essentially reframes. Like putting on different pairs of glasses, stories allow us to look at life and experience in ways that can shift our perspective, range and focus.

Different lenses in the frames allow stories either to zoom in on their subject or take a distant view. Filters can be attached to a lens to change colour, mood and energy levels.

At their most effective, stories can challenge and disturb our existing frames of reference – our accustomed map of the world – and shift us away from our limited thinking towards new learning and discovery.

Stories and business narratives offer us a way to see and understand our world in a new light and from a different angle. When you challenge your readers and listeners to accept the limitations and shortcomings of their own internal maps and limiting beliefs, new insights become possible. Stories are an important and powerful way of generating creativity and greater choice in our lives and those of others.