2.4 Telling powerful stories
Managers are usually very good at making a rational case for something. They are sometimes also quite good at drawing on evidence and offering a rational argument.
Managers are often less impressive when it comes to telling stories that engage with the emotional side of an organisation. This is strange in many ways, as Aristotle was writing about the arts of rhetoric nearly two and a half millennia ago in Ancient Greece (Aristotle, 322BC/1991), so it is not as if the power of a good story is a new technique. An effective story is a deeply aesthetic practice and can change the way people relate to, or think about an issue in powerful ways. We are not suggesting, however, that feelings should be valued over facts. We would agree with the criticism, often levelled at charities, that it is a mistake to dwell too much on tragic stories, with the aim of making people feel guilty or even responsible for others’ suffering. Instead, it is worth considering how an organisation’s purpose can be more compelling than balance sheets and quantitative measures.
Powerful stories used in leadership can be the stories of the people you have helped, or stories drawn from your own personal experience. Stories need not be hugely dramatic, but they do need to abide by some basic conventions. First, they need some kind of plot – usually a scene-setting beginning, an interesting middle and an effective ending, for example, one that contains a purpose, a moral to the story. Such codas (the proper narrative term for an ending) should not feel overly preachy but should speak directly to the purpose of an organisation. Importantly, stories need to contain a real cast of characters – people. Without characters, a story is not a story.
Consider this story from one of the course authors on her involvement with a charity working to end slavery:
Four years ago I had the opportunity to visit Cambodia with a group of women. We ate in cafés staffed by women released from brothels where they had been held forcibly – the women were tiny, under-nourished, quiet. One café made beautifully iced cakes. Their cup-cakes were works of art, and their fabulous tiered creations are ordered by politicians and royalty. We were shown around the immaculate training suite where women learned new skills and achieved their qualifications. We were not allowed to speak with the women, but the contrast between the beauty of their creations and the squalor of their pasts was all too evident. That experience changed my understanding of what it means to be released from slavery.
This story could have been told with a range of facts, statistics and graphs on the impact of anti-slavery work. But telling the story about a real group of women doing ordinary things perhaps taken for granted (making cakes) is poignant.
Activity 3 Telling a leadership story
How about trying some storytelling yourself? Next time you speak in a meeting or next time you want to persuade a colleague of something, try adopting a story format instead.
Record how effective you think your story was in your learning journal. What worked and what did not work so well? Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 5 Activity 3.
To paraphrase a famous beer advert, stories reach parts that other forms of language cannot. This does not mean that we need to be dominated by stories – facts and figures are important too, as are strongly held opinions. Yet used wisely, telling a compelling story can change the tone of an interaction. Stories should be viewed as one practice amongst others. Having considered some important processes of leadership, you will now be asked to think about the spaces in which leadership takes place. It is tempting to think of the spaces in which people work as fixed in advance but it is our argument that spaces can be worked with in creative ways to generate an environment more conducive to leadership.