Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Transmitting values

This type of story can be used to stress or demonstrate what is important to you and the organisation, the ethos of the organisation and how these values can be lived and demonstrated with integrity. Genuinely ethical values will win much greater support than those of the opportunist or shark.

Requirements

  • A minimalist story, it is simple yet evocative: for example, a parable or analogy.
  • This story has a generalised, timeless quality – hypothetic yet credible.
  • It can be positive or negative in tone.
  • Don’t moralise and don’t explain the story for others, especially before you tell it: let the story speak for itself. If you wish, you can say what it means to you personally after you’ve told it.
  • Separate your personal values from those of the organisation, unless there is a particular reason for not doing so.
  • Don’t tell a values story unless you visibly demonstrate at all times that you can walk the talk: actions speak louder than words.
  • Be self-aware. Distinguish between your espoused values and your values-in-use. We don’t always match up to the values we say we have – especially under pressure. Ensure you always walk your talk.

Some topics on which to base values stories

  • Something that makes you proud to work for your organisation
  • A time you faced and overcame some adversity, a challenge, a ‘dragon’
  • A turning point in your life
  • Someone you admire, perhaps a leader or teacher whose values you connect with and who you would willingly follow – what qualities or values does he or she embody?
Tip

One way to finish a values story is with a line such as:

‘And what I learned from this is... ’

Explain what the story meant for you, and then let your audience work out their own values for themselves.

Example

Frame: a culture where key people say one thing yet do another

One day a woman came to Gandhi and said, ‘Mahatma, please tell my son to stop eating sugar.’ Gandhi looked at the woman and the six-year-old child, and said, ‘Bring him back to me in three weeks’ time.’

Three weeks later the woman returned with her son. ‘Stop eating sugar,’ commanded Gandhi. ‘But Mahatma, why didn’t you tell him this three weeks ago.’ ‘Because, Madam, three weeks ago I myself was eating sugar.’

Example

Frame: over-reliance on technology and lack of initiative

During the early days of the space race, pressure was intense to see who would be first to put a man on the moon. For the Russians and Americans, their country’s pride, honour, and integrity were at stake. The astronauts were at the forefront of the action research, and their ability to make excellent notes about the effects of weightlessness on the human body and mind were critical to the development of the programmes.

A key problem was that ink doesn’t flow in zero gravity. The US put its best scientists to work. After countless hours and billions of dollars, the finest technical brains of the US came up with the Papermate, the pen with the pump at its heart, the perfect answer to writing great notes in space.

The Russians meanwhile solved the problem by giving their astronauts pencils.

What I take from this story is...