There’s a wise storyteller called David Campbell who cuts a distinctive figure about Edinburgh with his kilt and ponytail. ‘Story is the lifeline of human consciousness,’ says David. ‘Stories do not argue. They speak to the heart.’
Smart organisations have discovered this. Stories, they realise, create a sense of belonging, and everyone likes to belong. So they use stories not just to win customers and supporters, but to enthuse and encourage their own people – stories of beginnings and endings, of everyday events, of great achievements and, occasionally, if they’re very confident, of failures.
I like this one. The McIlhenny Company of Louisiana is on the skids. Tabasco sales have fallen year on year and the directors are holding a crisis meeting. Enter the tea-boy with his trolley. He sees the grim faces, the plunging graph, and asks what they’re talking about. Priding themselves on their southern openness, they tell him. I know what to do, he says after a moment. Tell us, they humour him. Easy, he replies, make the hole bigger. And they do.
Simple though it is there’s nothing trivial or childish about this story. It doesn’t even set out to make a point – it doesn’t ‘argue’, as David would say – though we draw our own conclusions from it about the value of honesty and the importance of listening. But it does tell of human struggle, of emotions like worry and relief; and so it should, because organisational life doesn’t just echo human experience, it is human experience.
For that reason alone, organisations should cherish their stories like all their other resources. ‘We cannot disagree with someone’s story,’ says David Campbell, ‘but we can listen, we can walk in step and thereby make a little contribution to widening and deepening the understanding between our brothers and sisters.’
At work, as elsewhere in our lives, what could possibly be more important?
You echo my thoughts on stories. Sales for instance, everyone is selling something from charities to investment banks. After doing it for a long time, the penny fell,what it comes down to is telling a story. You can tell an interesting story or a boring one, the better your story, the better your chances. Whether you are selling widgets or an Airbus, it’s the story. Of course there are ‘facts’ – price, competition and the rest of it – your story is how you make use of them. Forget advertising, the ‘hard sell’, or going to the latest guru’s packed conference at the Albert Hall, telling you how to ‘close that sale’. Half your story doesn’t even have to be about what you are selling. If in Venezuela, Kenya or Abu Dhabi, I talk and ask about what’s going on there. Your story can go on for years of visits and telling, then out of the blue comes a call ‘About your service, how much did you say…?’ Why the call ? Because they remembered you. Why ? Because you told a good story.