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Stephanie Sparrow

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Telling tales for training


Stories have the amazing ability to pull us into a whole new world and expose the reader to a new way of thinking. Stephanie Sparrow speaks to Margaret Parkin, author of Tales for Trainers, who explains the power stories hold for learning and development.

Once upon a time, a quiet young girl growing up in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough discovered a love of literature and a talent for story-telling.

Years later, Margaret Parkin was to become the best known story-teller in the corporate world, whose books, such as Tales for Trainers (published by Kogan Page) have been translated into five foreign languages including Russian and Chinese. 

Parkin has been an advocate of storytelling for about 20 years now, incorporating the medium into coaching sessions, leadership courses and development work. She taps into an eclectic mix of tales, from Aesop to Hans Christian Anderson, taking in anecdotes from President Kennedy’s grandfather along the way.

But this is no twee, fireside activity or cringe-worthy amateur drama. “First and foremost I am business woman,” says Parkin who previously worked in HR and training for major retail names such as Magnet and Asda. “ I look at what the company wants to achieve and then use a story as a vehicle - as the means to an end.”

Magic and mystery
This is the business application of stories. Parkin tells her tales with flair tempered with Northern common sense. She is attracted to magic and mystery (and as a lover of flamboyant clothes she admits to secretly wishing she could wear a cape) but also the moral message of fables. Her overwhelming motive is that stories are a powerful means of promoting self- reflection and change.

"While our conscious minds are absorbed, the unconscious mind is free to take in the moral or the message that the story contains." Margaret Parkin

In case story-telling still sounds out of step with modern society, Parkin illustrates how it is currently being used to grab our attention, from the nostalgic television adverts which tell the stories of Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury, to the vote-catching “back stories” of talent show contestants.

“As a piece from Harvard Business Review once said: ‘Persuasion is the centrepiece of business activity. Forget about the PowerPoint and statistics. To involve people at the deepest level you need stories,’” she says.

Parkin  uses story telling in a variety of ways, some quite covert . She might use prompt cards, for example, to encourage delegates to tell their own stories to each other.

“This is a way of getting people to move away from rigid thinking. I think of it as an ice-melter, something the group will enjoy, rather than an ‘ice-breaker’ which sounds aggressive,” she says.   
She also works overtly with stories and tells them in order to prompt a desired behaviour, their power resting in the fact that the process of being told a story creates the optimum state for learning in the listener.

Which wavelength?
“Our brains work on four different wavelengths,” she says. “Beta is the wide awake brain, Alpha the state of relaxed awareness; Theta  is on the edge of sleep and Delta in a deep sleep.”

Trainers might be tempted to think that they have to aim for Beta to get their message across, but, says Parkin, they can achieve more if their delegates’ minds are in Alpha, which incidentally is good news for any trainer having to address an audience in the post-lunch graveyard slot.

“While our conscious minds are absorbed, the unconscious mind is free to take in the moral or the message that the story contains,” she says.

Stories work for an adult audience because their crucial messages can be conveyed without the teller having to lecture the audience.

“Telling a story about the danger of  inappropriate goals, using King Midas, for example is non-invasive,” says Parkin. “It doesn’t say exactly what the listener, must do, but what might happen if they follow that behaviour. And it allows the listener to make a decision. In their own mind the listener starts to tell themselves their own story and that is the tipping point for them changing their own behaviour.”

Positive stories
Apart from personal stories, the concept of shared stories is also powerful.  Parkin works with companies to unearth their stories, some of which are holding them back.

“Any community which tells negative stories about itself becomes more negative,” she points out. Parkin corrects this by getting them to recognise their ‘heroes and heroines’and to share new positive stories.
She also helps them to subconsciously incorporate a story into their own way of working so that it subsequently becomes communications shorthand.

“For example, I worked with an IT company and used the tale of 'The Enormous Turnip' as an example of team building. It is useful, because talking about a fictitious group of characters trying to reach a common goal does not allude to sensitivities among the existing team,” she says. “I have found that company members still ring me up to discuss what they call ‘the turnip problem.’” 

Leadership development
Parkin is seeing a demand for development courses which covertly awaken leaders to the power of story telling. The underlying message is to develop leaders who can engage the listener with their rhetoric. She obviously relishes this challenge, which builds on her passion for words.

“Good leaders engage people by using imagery when they speak to them,” she says. “So they should be using metaphor, similes and  repetition, but many just don’t get it.”

Parkin awakens their sensibilities by presenting them with a brightly coloured jester’s hat filled with separate sets of similes and random words. Delegates pull two cards from the hat to find they have made nonsensical phrases (“as exciting as fluff” for example) which should jolt their thinking and help to wean them off clichés.

Stories also have a place in coaching scenarios says Parkin. She has created a template called Success Journey, which encourages people to tell their own stories and to identify the ‘plot’ of their career with its heroes, villains and conflicts. This is best deployed in a coaching context (and explored in Parkin’s Tales for Coaching) where the coachee can step back from a situation by seeing it as a storyline, and discussing  with the coach how to re-write it.

Her own favourite stories are those with strong imagery, clear morals and people supporting each other.

“I am fond of Cinderella because it shows good defeating evil and that, as in the case of Buttons and the Fairy Godmother, we always have someone to turn to,” she says.

Margaret Parkin’s books are published by Kogan Page Margaret Parkin can be contacted via her website:
In the autumn she is running courses for HR and training managers who want to learn more about how to use stories in training.

Read the TrainingZone review of Tales for coaching.


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