When my kids were very young, I used to tell them stories. I did it at night to help them cross the line between my story and their dreams. During breakfast, I would read them a short story to wake them up for a new day at school. Poe, Buzzati, Vian and others. It worked quite well. And they remember it.
Nowadays story telling is everywhere—or is everyone just telling stories? In any case, even leaders are supposed to do it.
At ICM, we engage in storytelling when we write case studies to trigger thoughts and discussions about a given situation. Most of the time, these stories open up creative thinking around finding innovative solutions. Over the years we have seen how powerful these stories can be. People identify with the story and its characters, in particular if it reflects what they experience on a day-to-day basis. Emotions and fun contribute to engaging with the story and to finding options and solutions to a given issue.
But there are some do’s and don’t’s, ups and downs, good things and bad things and some dark or light sides to storytelling.
Beware of manipulation
On the back of this innovative roll-on deodorant you can read a lovely, compelling story about this new and nature-friendly-active-ingredient that is deeply rooted in the tradition of some remote tribe in eastern Borneo. We read the spin and are suddenly transporter elsewhere, to our latest vacations perhaps, or the trip of our dreams. But what does this have to do with the product we just bought? Another example. Written on the back of the packaging of a new perfume, Samantha tells her story and testifies in detail how she suddenly had tremendous success with Ken, a colleague who had hardly noticed her in the office before. There are plenty of others. Story telling was not invented yesterday and advertizing has been around for decades.
Storytelling has now invaded the “management” area and has suddenly become one of the crucial leadership skills. Tell stories to inspire people to “walk the extra mile”, as they say. Tell stories to capture their emotions and engagement. Tell stories to make people feel emotionally rewarded. (But beware of putting people to sleep!).
So let’s be honest. History is full of excellent storytellers, in particular in politics, where great or dreadful heroes have either driven their people to fantastic achievements or in other cases to absolute disaster. They all told great stories. What makes the difference is the story itself. And that’s my point.
There is a real challenge with storytelling: the need to make a clear distinction between a compelling story and a manipulative story; between personal engagement and bullshit—even though we know that some gray zones exist between the two. (Will “Constructive Manipulation” be the next buzzword?)
The best storyteller can spin a bad tale and be toxic for the community. We all heard the great Enron story and its set of values, brilliantly communicated to all employees not long before the crash. Integrity was first in the company Values statement. And some mediocre speakers can quietly tell a great story that will spur people on to great achievements. Not many of us heard the Airbus founders who, based on the European aeronautic tradition, decided to write their story of European aeronautics and eventually successfully fight Boeing. At the time, many thought it wouldn’t make a story, at best a joke.
Back to basics, honesty and authenticity
All this to say that whatever we do, whatever new skill we develop, at the end of the day we come back to the fundamentals: ethics and values. Once again, it’s all about ends and means. A talented storyteller can easily sell his or her story. Grabbing people’s imagination is fantastic, even hypnotic at times. It’s an art. And Some people are more skilled or trained for this.
But the truly essential thing remains the authenticity and honesty of the goal. If the story is devious, anger and frustration will at some point kill trust and engagement, and for a long time. If a story is heartfelt and honest it becomes one of those “little bit more” that add color and energy to the language we speak, to the projects we engage in, to the community we belong to, even when times are tough.
Have a good night!