Earlier this week I spent two days helping run storytelling workshops for the senior leaders of a well-known high street retailer. They’re about to launch a new business plan and they have a lot of information to get across to their several thousand employees. They recognise, to their credit, that a 60-slide PowerPoint deck is not the way to do it. So they brought in The Writer, the agency I periodically work for, to show them how to use stories as another, altogether more effective, way of getting over their messages.
Asking people to stop for a while and think about something they do quite instinctively is always instructive, as much for the trainers as the trainees. We all know that telling stories is one of the most natural of human activities, even those of us who don’t think we do it very well. But start to look at how stories work – at the neuroscience and the psychology, start to think about why one is telling them, and suddenly something that seemed as easy as breathing becomes a lot more complicated.
There’s a process of deconstruction, and the first thing to go is spontaneity as it dawns that the story one used to tell about one thing is not really about that at all. For example, the tale of that dreadful moment when there was a fire in the electrical cupboard and the store was evacuated without incident, is not about seamless teamwork; it’s actually about how the teller came through a particularly tricky situation with flying colours.
As my fellow trainer, Julie, and I discussed over dinner, the first night, all stories are really metaphors. Every story we tell stands for something else, whether we realise it or not. And that moment of dawning for the novice storyteller is usually a simultaneous recognition of several things: the unconsciously self-serving nature of many of the stories we tell, the difficulty of telling a story really well, and the power they have if we tell them properly.
Stories allow us to bring meaning to the world around us. They shine light into the darkness. They are, as Julie said, ‘the fire in the cave’. It’s a wonderful image, and one that brings to mind a film I have watched several times recently, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Herzog is granted very limited access to the Chauvet Caves, in the Ardeche. He weaves his own story around the technical difficulties of lighting and filming the interior of the huge cave system, over a very short time, without stepping off the foot-wide metal walkways installed by the French authorities to protect the place. Meanwhile he leads us on a journey to explore the astonishingly beautiful paintings that had remained a secret for more than 30,000 years, until three French scientists stumbled on the cave entrance, just before Christmas 1994.
There are horses snickering in fear at the approach of a pride of cave lions. There are lumbering mammoths and a clash between two woolly rhinos. There’s a strange projection of rock where the head of a bull surmounts human, female genitalia. There are the skulls of huge cave bears. There are soot marks from pine torches on the ceilings, and the sooty handprints of their bearers on the walls. Best of all, in the dust of the cave floor are two sets of prints, the feet of an eight year-old boy and, just behind, the paws of a wolf. Did they travel into the depths of the cave as companions, or as hunter and prey? Or did their journey into the darkness take place thousands of years apart?
Everywhere one looks in the eerily silent chambers there are stories told with breathtaking skill by people taking refuge from the chill of the last ice age, people whose artistry bridges the millennia in an instant. What was their purpose? Of course we don’t really know, but some form of shamanism seems likely, some sense of the porousness of boundaries between human, animal and spirit. And the paintings become more astonishing still when one realises that their creators deliberately used the contours of the rock, along with the flicker of torchlight – the only light available to either painter or viewer in those deep, mysterious places, to give them movement and bring them alive.
A thousand generations ago, those artists lit a flame that burns on in our imaginations to this day. That’s what businesses now want to tap into. The fire in the cave.