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The power of a good story

We all know the power of a story. When someone says they are going to tell us a story, we are programmed to listen. As devotees of frameworks, we should take note. After all, stories are simply frameworks.

Let me give you an example. I want you to imagine that you are responsible for a team of people who need to think differently. You want to impress upon them the difficulties of thinking outside of the box. This seems exciting and people say they have open minds. You are concerned that they are stuck in a rut and loathe to do things differently.

Tell them a story. Give them a framework. Here is one that someone told me.

There once was a man who started dancing and enjoying himself. Everyone pointed at him and laughed at him. They raised their eyebrows and ignored him. Despite all this, the man stuck to his guns and kept dancing. He didn’t let people intimidate him to give up.

After some time a second man joined in the dancing. People stared at them and laughed. A few people noticed them and had a look to see what they were doing.

More time passed and a third man joined in the dancing and then a fourth. People stopped laughing and pointing. Some even said they had thought about dancing. Suddenly more and more people joined in until nearly everyone was dancing. The few who were not, felt like the odd ones out and most of them finally joined the dance.

Another story I like is the flip side of “the little dancer”; it is “Gwenda and the well". It is a story of how sometimes we are forced into doing illogical things because isolation is too much to bear.

In a time long ago there was a village. Like all villages at the time it had a well from which everyone took their drinking water. Gwenda lived in a house just outside the village next to a little brook. She didn't need to take water from the well as she had her own supply.

Little by little Gwenda noticed that her fellow villagers were going crazy. She had difficulty talking to them and it seemed that they couldn’t understand her. She thought they may have caught a terrible disease; or maybe it was a curse. But when she thought about it logically, she could see that the source of the problem was the well. She concluded that there must be some mineral leaching into the well that was affecting people's brains. It wasn't long before the whole of the village turned completely crazy and Gwenda couldn't communicate with anyone. She became very lonely. What did Gwenda do? No, she didn't move away, she was too attached to the village where she had lived all her life. She didn't administer any antidote to the people because she didn't know one. She drank from the well.

The point of stories is that they frame a message that has to be understood if the business is to move forward. It is difficult to be different even if you know that you are right. Good ideas are often hard to accept because the old manner of behaviour is grounded in everyone's minds. Stories are frameworks – use them.

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