‘Once upon a time . . .’

. . . Such magical words, spoken often in a home with little people – words that contrive to conjure up all kinds of memories and emotions, unleash expectations and hold promise; words that children instinctively understand and that capture their attention; words that release us to be voyagers to limitless destinations where the imagination is free to roam.

Stories matter. And so do stories about stories.

Stories inform life. They hold us together, and they also keep us apart. We inhabit the great stories of our culture. We live through the stories of our race and place. Our families and our country provide daily examples of this reality. The epic journey towards the birth of a democratic South Africa is surrounded by countless stories. Some are better known than others, but they were stories that converged from diverse places to form a stream that became an irresistible tidal wave, for ever changing the political and social landscape of the ‘beloved country’. These were the stories that were told in part through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stories that cannot be ignored and will never be forgotten.

Our very realities are organised and maintained through stories. In striving to make sense of life, we face the task of arranging our experiences of events into sequences across time in such a way as to arrive at a coherent account of ourselves and the world around us.

This account is a story.

There is a growing appreciation of the role that ‘the story’ plays in today’s corporate world. Marketing gurus have been quick to understand this reality as they realise that in the future products will increasingly have to appeal to our hearts, not to our heads. They have deliberately fused stories into their products and we can only expect this practice to gain momentum in the future. We can expect the story to become the product. In 1996 Copenhagen Airport sold ice cubes imported from Greenland and with your ice cube you just happened to get a drink. The point of this? Well, the ice cubes were the story: the cubes contained air that predated the pyramids. Think about it: there you were, sitting in an airport lounge, enjoying a drink which contained ice cubes with encapsulated air dating back thousands of years!

It is as we learn to inhabit our own story that authentic personal growth begins to take place. Storytelling becomes the terrain where we are able to discover the roots of our belonging and make better sense of our need for affection and acceptance. As we learn to share our story we discover the means to help ourselves and, with a bit of grace, perhaps others too. We are therefore beginning to learn that storytelling inhabits and belongs at the core of business.

The core of the company, its genetic code, is made accessible through stories. In this regard there is no one more important than the CEO as the ‘Director of Storytelling’. In fact Director of Storytelling (DOS) might well be tomorrow’s new title for those we currently title ‘CEO’.

I once met a CEO of a large and reputable financial institution. I had asked to meet with him in order to hear something of his story, but had not used this line of approach in setting up the luncheon. All I did was ask questions. Questions that probed his personal and professional experiences, crisscrossing these boundaries at will. Questions that I suspect he enjoyed answering, and by the time the coffee was served, had yielded a rich harvest of information. At the end of his storytelling I asked him just who else within his organisation had ever heard what he had just told me. It turned out that no one had, either because they hadn’t asked (it’s not the kind of conversation that many have with their CEOs) or because he was no Jack Welch who wanted the world to know just how good he was at his job. This man was too humble to trumpet his story throughout the offices of his domain.

What a tragedy! Others were the poorer for such non-disclosure. In the future the successful CEO will be the one who is able to tell the stories which reveal themselves as well as the company’s core, its values…its DNA. And as the stories are lived well and shared wisely they will inspire, create belonging, foster pride and nurture a perspective and context for information, change and growth.

Best dust off that favourite storybook and begin to reacquaint yourself with the art of storytelling. No longer will it be sufficient only to interpret the financials, write the reports and make those tough decisions!

And some further jottings . . .

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T S Eliot, Four Quartets (Little Gidding)

I know the following exercise as ‘The River of Life’ but you may have encountered it under a different name. It offers one of the best ways to bring a person’s ‘story’ to the surface. It needs time, lots of time, some materials and an environment where there will be no interruptions. Your next retreat or staff teambuilding venture are possible opportunities to conduct this exercise.

Each person is given a large sheet of paper on which to draw. There should be crayons available, magazines that can be cut up, glue, scissors and anything else that you think would assist the exercise. The task is simple: using whatever materials are provided, draw your life as a river, starting from the source and ending where you find yourself today. Rivers offer lots of creative opportunity for expressing the twists and turns, the rapids, the waterfalls, and the meanderings of your life journey. You will be surprised at how creative people are and how this exercise offers an opportunity to make some sort of sense, and to form a coherent picture, of our journey. Often what has not been included reveals as much as that which does find its way on to the page. People need to be given plenty of time to complete this task, which can be done in a communal setting with pleasant background music.

Once the task has been completed, everyone is given the opportunity to share their ‘river’ with the group. People often don’t think that others will be interested in hearing their story and seldom do they realise just how important telling our story can be for our own benefit. You won’t be bored! Amazing stories of courage and joy, struggle and difficulty will shine through. People will connect in ways they never thought possible and the shared story will build the empathy and understanding that are so important in a diverse team.

(And by the way, if you’d like to read more of just how important stories will become in the enduringly successful businesses and products of the future, read Rolf Jensen’s book The Dream Society, published by McGraw-Hill.)

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