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The power of storytelling


Trevor Gay explores the merits of good storytelling as a learning device and offers some thoughts on why it is a useful tool in the world of management.

"Storytelling - the incredible power generated by the simple act of transmitting information by word of mouth."

Sometimes I have been glued to a story told by someone – my concentration has been total. In more reflective moments I think about the process I have been through. How is it that:

  • I remember the story almost word for word, without rehearsing?  
  • I create pictures in my head from a story?
  • I can relate the story to another context and use it to transmit a message?

I am not suggesting everyone learns through stories, or that stories are the best, or only way of learning. Stories are simply one of many methods of teaching and learning - but it is interesting to muse that before the written word was invented, all information was passed on orally. Arguably, the oldest skill in the communications book of tricks is the spoken word. With the words we speak there is no electronic spell check or grammar check. When we are talking we don’t think about left or right justified so maybe we are more ‘on the spot’ with our spoken word. Little wonder many like to think carefully before opening their mouth to speak – little wonder equally, that many regret speaking without thinking first. The power of the spoken word is immense.

Some have the ability to deliver the story in such a compelling way that we never forget it. I cannot recall a page of A4 text from my Physics lessons at school, but I can probably recall (almost word for word) some of the stories I have been told, 20 or 30 years ago.

In the world of organisations, management and leadership I believe we are beginning to appreciate the value of story telling. Tom Peters talks about the underestimated power of storytelling in the organisational world.

Below are some random thoughts about story telling and its relationship to effective management and leadership and how things get done.

1.    Storytelling touches emotions and presses the right buttons for the listener. It is a very effective way of prompting a response and thereby creating discussion. A story can be a vehicle to transmit a potentially sensitive message.

2.    Stories told well, create pictures... a picture says a thousand words... hence, stories are an efficient, as well as effective, communication method.

3.    At school some lecturers were 'teachers' and some were 'evangelist teachers'. Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the 'teachers' were probably very competent in their subject... the 'evangelists' were the ones who made learning interesting and enjoyable - part of their repertoire was usually the ability to 'make it real' by telling a story.

4.    Things often get done in organisations in what is called 'by the way time'. Those conversations in the coffee-making room when the chief executive bumps into the director of finance and the conversation starts with 'By the way...'  This may not be story telling from a purist perspective but 'by the way time' is ad-hoc, informal and unplanned chat… some of that will be in the nature of storytelling.

5.    How many times do we attend courses and conferences when what we remember of the speaker is the anecdote and the story rather than the technical information they imparted in their half-hour of glory at the podium? In my experience it is more often the story telling and the anecdote that is remembered.

6.    Story telling can dissect very complex situations by providing a context that the listener can relate to. For instance ask someone in the finance team to explain some complicated financial issue in simple terms I usually ask for what I call a 'simplicity tour'. This not only makes the subject interesting, it invariably means relaying the information in a story-type way.

7.    In the healthcare world, patients' and carers' storytelling is one way of getting services to change. There is nothing as powerful as a patient’s story and many believe it is far more effective than formal audit. Patients tend to 'say it as it really is' and patient stories are a relatively untapped lever for change. Patients are people and we need healthcare staff to deal with patients as people not as objects of clinical or diagnostic interest.

8.    The 'rational school' of management will argue that stories are subjective and management is about objectivity. I would say there is a place for both in management settings in the healthcare world because;

  • Healthcare is labour intensive with salaries often accounting for over 70% of total expenditure
  • People have strengths, weaknesses and frailties
  • People are not necessarily always predictable and rational

All of these suggest a rational, logical approach will not always fit – we need some 'subjective atmosphere' occasionally so that, when the need arises, we can act 'on the seat of our pants' and by natural instinct, trusting only the heart. The use of story telling will be important at these times.

In summary I think we should not underestimate the power of storytelling in the world of management. It is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of any manager and if used sensibly, wisely and sparingly it can prove a most effective way of:

  • Getting your message across
  • Inspiring others
  • Spreading your message
  • Making work an interesting place to be

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