On the second night of our recent Dark Angels advanced course in Spain, once they had all settled in, we decided to ask the eight students to take just a couple of minutes after dinner to say why they had come. Two hours later we were all still sitting there, candles guttering low, wine bottles empty, enthralled by what we were hearing.
Well fed and watered, people were opening up in a remarkable way. Everyone had a story to tell and in almost all cases the decision to come on the course proved merely to be the latest chapter in a chain of events that had begun years or even decades previously.
These weren’t simply rambling tales from life. They were all specifically to do with the urge to write. Even if that wasn’t apparent at the outset, we knew where each story would end because it was why we were all in Spain in the first place.
Without exception they were stories of personal passion. They were stories about people connecting deeply, or looking for a way to connect more deeply, with what they do for a living. We are compelled by other people’s passion (and when it’s engineered – the recent party conferences come to mind – we know it at once and reject it).
I sometimes get asked what makes a good business story. If passion is a step too far, then authenticity at least must be the starting point. It’s a word that’s bandied about a lot these days, and it means different things to different people. For me it means feeling that the person telling the story has real emotional investment in it – as did our eight students in Spain.
It doesn’t even terribly matter what it’s about because it’s the conviction that transmits itself more strongly than the facts; the invitation to imagine alongside the storyteller and be briefly present in their universe. So a good business story is one in which the teller has a personal and felt connection with the subject matter of the story, no matter what its purpose – to sell, persuade, influence, win trust, inspire.
Naturally the language of business doesn’t lend itself to telling such stories – and the purpose of Dark Angels is to show people, or remind them, that there’s another way to make with the words. Readers in Scotland will have seen the open letter to Creative Scotland this week, signed by 100 of the country’s leading artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers and craftspeople, excoriating the organisation for its management style and, among other things, its use of ‘business speak and obfuscating jargon’.
I don’t believe that the people who work at Creative Scotland set out to obfuscate, but language swiftly becomes institutionalised, especially when government is the paymaster. I am sure that most who work there genuinely love the arts and are happy to be working in support of them. But the language and culture makes it impossible for them to say so in any meaningful way. They simply don’t know how, or don’t feel it’s permissible or appropriate, to tell those stories of personal conviction and connection that are the best kind of business stories.