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 / Second Quarter 2002 / Issue 27(originally published by Booz & Company)


Once Upon a Time

Even when the listeners are adults, all they have to hear are words akin to “once upon a time,” and the judgmental doors of their left brains tend to swing closed. The doors of their right brains — always eager to hear life turned into a story — swing open.

Consider this fable: Once upon a time there was a crow. She was a hot, thirsty crow, and she soared from east to west and north to south in search of water. After many hours, she spied a pitcher full of water in a gravel courtyard. But, alas, the neck of the pitcher was too narrow for her to insert her beak. What could she do? As her black feathers baked in the sun, inspiration struck. She picked up a bunch of stones from the courtyard, and tossed them, one by one, into the pitcher. As the water rose to the rim of the pitcher, she could drink.

This Aesop fable has a moral: Necessity is the mother of invention. But the moral, however relevant, is not what’s most notable to a student of storytelling. What’s remarkable is that when listeners hear the start of such a story — whether fable, personal remembrance, or corporate myth — they implicitly agree to a certain set of rules as an audience. Rather than judge the veracity of each fact presented, as they would in a traditional analytical presentation, they tend to let the facts slide (what would be the point of arguing over the reasoning powers of a crow?).

As Yiannis Gabriel says, stories coax listeners into colluding with the storyteller to find meaning, no matter how fantastic or fanciful the story may sound. Squished mice? Thirsty crows? No matter. Stories quiet the nettlesome nit-picking of left-brain thinking and stimulate people’s creativity.

You may wonder, if you don’t fancy yourself a storyteller, just where do you come up with relevant stories to tell in a corporation? Don’t get the impression that most of your tales should come from Aesop or from other fiction. Most come from your own experience. From childhood. From college. From work. From military experience.

Professor Gabriel recalls a story from a naval training camp. Recruits were standing for inspection before receiving furloughs. They shifted nervously. The commanding officer could cancel their furlough for the least reason. On one occasion, so the recruits said, the officer had asked them to lower their trousers while standing to be inspected. He then canceled everyone’s leave — because the men were wearing a motley selection of briefs rather than the official Navy-issued white boxers.

If you were to recall a similar humorous memory, you could use it, for example, to illustrate the kind of controlling behavior you abhor. Or you could use a story to show humanness, or even to suggest vulnerability. Alternatively, you could share stories from master management storytellers like Stanley Bing. Mr. Bing, a columnist at Fortune magazine (and the nom de plume for Gil Schwartz, a senior CBS executive), is known for mercilessly using edgy humor to expose management truths. His latest book, Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up, gives self-help advice about managing your boss by telling stories through the eyes of a modern-day Buddah. Mr. Bing uses an elephant as a metaphor for a boss. One tip: “If the elephant can see what you’re doing in its rearview mirror, you are too close.”

You may think that you can’t possibly bring stories into your speeches and conversations, or that you can’t remember anything worth telling. But professional storyteller Jack Maguire, author of The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect with Others, documents a variety of means to dredge up, and liven up, such memories. Mr. Maguire suggests listing “story triggers” on a sheet of paper, and then seeing what they conjure up.

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