What is so important about storytelling? Why should 40 people tasked with designing a customer relationship management system for 5,000 employees care about storytelling with clay molds? How will a knowledge of smashing and rolling techniques improve detailed customer performance software? How will knowing about Mendeleev and the creation of the periodic table of elements help a group of New York Daily News journalists create a novel online newspaper replacement? Because a well-told story starts out as someone else’s curiosity and ends up as a talisman of one’s own newly-acquired insight.
To find a solution requires seeing the problem in a new light, from a new vantage point. I tell stories early in the facilitation process to begin the process of conveying the participants as far from their problem as possible, and giving them a lens through which to view it from a distance. I always look for a story with some metaphorical connection to how I see the client’s problem, though I rarely expect more than a minority of the participants to see the link. Usually, but not always, the story emerges from a broader metaphor or theme which I see underlying the overall problem the client faces. (I write more about themes and metaphors in Chapter 6.)
Sometimes, I tell a more personal story. Opening a large session for Google, planning their first foray into what is now Google Apps, I told the story of my experiences in baseball and tennis at high school. I recounted how I was better at baseball and it was more fun, but I grew up in Singapore and England where there were almost no baseball players. On the other hand, I could play tennis all year and I had access to some of the best training around. I was stubborn and continued both for years. Switching from throwing a baseball to a tennis serve proved to be more and more of a problem and converting between them before each game became too time-consuming. My coaches encouraged me – first slowly then forcibly – to consider how I would shepherd my (rotator cuff) resources and energy to where they would have the most impact on my teammates… not to mention on the accuracy of my serves. As Google converted from a desktop paradigm to the new cloud, they had to let go of what everyone else was doing in their MS Word documents on their hard drives and fully embrace the future of every file online.
Several years later, at a large workshop to develop cost-saving strategies for patients by using big data to analyze remedies by body part, we told the story of eating a muffin. We described in detail the digestive process., from the taste, to the way the wheat and fruit were broken down by teeth and saliva, and how numerous body parts worked together to release the unneeded nutrients as a stool. We then spent a week with 80 data scientists, doctors, lawyers and more to find out exactly how to reduce the costs of treating diseases in each of those body parts that the muffin touched, almost down to the cellular level.
We used this simple story, of the body parts that are involved with digesting a muffin, as a metaphor for the diseases of each organ that we were tackling every step of the way. The muffin story ‘took’ and helped a disparate group of executives from actuaries to Zostavax treatment experts to develop a common language for reducing cost, even if they were previously unfamiliar with how the body processes a muffin.
A compelling story is a great way to launch a large event. If told with passion and a light heart, it can focus the attention of an entire room on a common theme, not to mention enhance the credibility of the storyteller – always a good idea when the facilitator is not known or not-yet-trusted.
I start even the smallest workshop with a story, though I’ll try my best to keep it short. For a 12-person event on strategic alignment that happened to take place on the day of a new moon, I opened with a definition of the charming word syzygy (the alignment of three or more celestial objects) and the strengthening effect that this alignment has on the tides and on some animal behaviors.
What all these stories have in common is that they are not rehearsed; they are not even planned. I occasionally research and settle on a story in the days leading up to an event, but then I never use it. My opening story (which tends to be the biggest one I tell during an event) comes to me the morning I tell it, usually while I am showering.
There’s no particular valor in not preparing a story in advance but I find that the right mixture of focus, adrenaline and stream of consciousness, one-idea-bouncing-off-another creativity almost always eludes me until the very morning my event begins. The story (true, of course) about high school baseball and tennis only occurred to me half an hour before the event began and I used it in favor of the weaker story I had prepared earlier. During one double event, the sponsor insisted I tell the same story a second time, despite my protests. Of course, it fell flat when told a second time and I have never told the same story twice to the same clients since then. However, I highly recommend re-using good stories with different clients. Employing a well-practiced story can drive home a point with a new client extremely effectively. Note: keep track of where you use your stories!
One of the purposes of telling stories and employing metaphor is to help participants find new language with which to address their issues. The design of a great event causes the participants to feel briefly lost and then provides the tools, ideas, and trust to allow them, individually or collectively, to find their way to a new-found (though, ephemeral) place of safety and confidence. A good story does the same, but all packed into the first few minutes of an event.
Telling a story successfully lends enormous power to the storyteller. By taking a skeptical or uncertain listener to a new place, a new vantage point, by way of a story, the storyteller has changed that listener profoundly. And if, from that new vantage point, the listener sees something new about his business or, better yet, himself, the storyteller will be trusted next time to lead the way on potentially more treacherous journeys.
To earn that trust, I try to tell a story in my opening that is initially of no obvious relevance. I want the participants to doubt me; I want to set their bullshit detectors beeping like mad. I have read a story about Ganesha, the God of removing obstacles. I have taught them about the hormones the body releases throughout a day, and which parts of their brains are reacting – especially the amygdala. I have retold my grandfather’s World War II adventures as a pilot in a B-32 bomber. I have put an artificial intelligence app on giant screens and told the story of how computers are reacting to my voice to make decisions about the story’s direction. I also rely heavily on my non-work experiences for source material, especially my time making a documentary film in a dozen African countries.
Without explanation, I take them as far from their problem as I can, so that the journey back is that much more novel and satisfying. When people feel lost and then find their own way ‘home’ or to safety or to whatever they are seeking, the path they have found takes on as great a meaning as their destination. As the playwright Edward Albee wrote, “Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly”.
Having earned their trust from the very beginning, I have the freedom either to choose stories that will require them to make great leaps of faith and imagination or only to take a tiny step away from their work to inspect it up-close and critique their thinking more honestly.
As an event proceeds, I will sometimes refer to my original story and sometimes introduce new stories, either to draw linkages between themes that have emerged at various moments in the event or to challenge some element of conventional wisdom. Here is an example of the latter:
In a session for a large multinational which had recently acquired 14 new companies, the session’s purpose was to build personal, local, statewide, regional and domestic plans. The participants talked about iterating thousands of options together, fully acknowledging they might have to stop or even completely rebuild what they had so diligently built before they were acquired. The participants repeatedly spoke of the trade-off between quality and cost; they took for granted that in an era of tight budgets, quality and uniqueness of local solutions would have to suffer. While I have no way of knowing whether they are right or wrong (and had I posed as an expert on such matters I would have damaged my credibility as a neutral facilitator), I was able to tell the story of Saturday mornings with my kids who invented ‘True Coloring Window Brunch’.
I let my wife sleep in on Saturdays and I always struggle with what to do. Cartoons are an amazingly time-consuming (if somewhat evil-parenting) trick of which my wife doesn’t approve. So one Saturday, I stumbled upon just asking the kids to draw what they wanted to do. Their first ‘iteration’ (I make fun of myself to the audience that I am one of those dads that uses these words with his kids. I happily admit I’m a Wall Street consultant recovering from years inside a Big Five firm), their first draft was okay, but it wasn’t much of an activity. The next version started to get interesting and I began sweating because I’d promised them that we’d do whatever they drew. A mad thought crept into my mind – what would happen when my three-year old figured out how to draw himself flying? What little boy doesn’t like helicopters and planes? I used the power of iteration and quality and anything else I could think of, plus his two older sisters, to draw another picture of how we could all fly together. The next three pictures got better and better and before long we were driving to ‘SkyZone’ – a trampoline park where you could get launched into foam pits. Amid the putrid smell of sweaty plastic, the kids all got to fly that day. Not only did they draw amazing things, but they re-invented what it means for everyone to be successful, perhaps redefining flying altogether.
By starting my story in a relatively far-away time and place (my kitchen counter) I intentionally interrupted the participants’ train of thought, based as it was on unquestioned assumptions. The story took them out of their immediate challenge and gave them a new, higher challenge: how to improve each person’s job at 14 distinct companies as a way to free up resources and define how they could all ‘fly’.
This was a very small story and made only a marginal contribution to the flow of the discussion and the eventual outcome. Frequent use of small stories – whose pertinence is obvious – can help raise the level of discussion above the routine. Indeed, after my ambitious opening story, I tend to keep to business themes and hold back on the metaphor unless I am introducing a major shift in thinking, activity, energy, or tone.