A story about storytelling

I am by nature a dealer in words,
and words are the most powerful drug known to humanity
Rudyard Kipling

My fiancée was telling me about a discussion she had with colleagues during a training session on how to present market research data in the form of a story.

She explained that researchers are traditionally great at presenting data but really battle with presenting it in a way that people can connect with, make sense of and effectively use to better their business or brand.

So it made sense that they were starting to use storytelling to become more relevant to their clients.

And it got me thinking…thinking about how everyone is rushing to get onto the storytelling bandwagon. We’re seeing it everywhere, from education to leadership, advertising, brand building etc. etc. etc.

Storytelling is now perceived as the silver bullet. And I’m willing to argue that most people can’t rationalise why it works but intrinsically know that it works. It captures the emotions and after all who can’t relate to a good story, told in the right context of course.

We’re naturally storytelling creatures. Simply put, stories are what make us uniquely human and it goes back eons. It’s how we informed one another of dangers, conquests, experiences and history. And how we imparted wisdom and learning so that others wouldn’t have to make the same old mistakes.

We use stories to educate, motivate, inspire, share and connect with each other. Stories ‘transport’ us: they engage both minds and hearts. Then there’s always the raconteur who has the tale about the big fish. And while we’re not quite sure if we believe it, it’s entertaining to say the least.

So to get back to my point – we’re all rushing to be heard amongst the chatter. Everyone has something to say and so we’ve resorted to shouting louder just to be heard. But when does a story have the biggest impact?

If I think back to stories that have influenced me it’s the ones that were told quietly, in a small group, sitting around a fire or a dinner table: the stories that were told to reinforce a point of conversation, the stories that were an intrinsic part of the conversation and where everyone participating was engaged, and the stories that were often a response to something someone in the group had said.

In these situations, the storyteller was an integral part of the group. A person who was invited to be there – someone who earned the right to speak, firstly by listening, then by evaluating the context and responding in the right way at the right time, and in a simple manner that showed relevance and meaning.

Consider the book that sits on the bookshelf unread. I’d had one of those for years. It was called “Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life” by Spencer Johnson. I remember having received it as a gift from my mother. I’d never even picked it up, until one Sunday morning in September 2003.

I was sitting in my office at home on a farm in Hampshire, UK and looking over my bookshelf when my curiosity got the better of me. I picked it out and read it in an hour, amazed at its power through the use of simplicity and metaphor. Once finished, I spent a while reflecting on which of its characters I’d been during recent periods of big change. About 20 minutes into my reflection, my then wife came into the office and asked me to join her in the living room for a chat. The chat entailed her telling me that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and that she wanted to move out of our home within the week!

Talk about timing.

I’d like to think my response to her was mature, in part due to my having just read this profound book, but also due to a journey I’d embarked upon just a month before, a journey where I was trying to make sense of who I was and the relevance of my part to play in this life.

My account proves that stories may or may not be relevant for the time in which they are told. Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean it has any impact.

In our rush to tell stories, we so often make the mistake of storytelling for storytelling’s sake. A story only has impact when it forms an integral part of the dialogue. And its message will only impact behaviours when the audience or participants to the conversation are emotionally are ready for it. How many stories fall flat or books remain unread due to poor timing?

So what is it that I’m trying to share with you?

The storyteller has to earn the right to tell the story. We need to be invited into the conversation, and we need to listen, reflect, ensure context and gauge the timing before we start. Because no one will want to engage if we don’t.

And maybe if you’ve got these fundamentals right, your story will make a difference, be relevant, and most importantly connect people and purpose together.


“Commitment builds when people are an active part of the experience of creating something they value together. Using common language, symbols and metaphors which evoke positive emotion helps to bring people together. ”
Peter Senge



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