The power of storytelling
Recently I watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow. I know, I’m literally that cool. In that particular episode a man had brought with him an old worn leather coat. It was jet black and had faded on the pockets. It was pleasant enough to look at, in an old leather coat kind of way. Upon first inspection, the valuer looked at it a bit nonplussed. He explained that it was a good representation of coats from that era. It had been kept in a good condition and at auction he would expect it to fetch somewhere in the region of £1,000.
The owner then revealed that the coat had belonged to John F. Kennedy and that he had owned it whilst living in the South of France. This was three weeks before marrying Jackie Onassis, and during that time he was having a relationship with a 21-year-old student. She had documented this period in a series of love letters and taken photographs of him in the coat. As the man told the story, more of an audience gathered. After he had finished, the valuer said, ‘Wow! If only that coat could speak. The story is everything.’ With a smile on his face he then confidently valued the coat at between £200,000 and £300,000. The audience gasped and the owner’s jaw dropped to the floor.
‘The story is everything.’ Stories are everything, they are important, they matter. They help us understand the world and reflect on how we should live in it.
They help us engage with the big unwieldy issues we encounter in our lives. They make us laugh with joy and weep with sadness. We are moved by stories and when they’re good we want to tell them to others. ‘You’ll never guess what happened to me at the weekend …’ ‘Have you heard about ….’ ‘Did you see …’ ‘Once upon a time …’
At their best, stories allow space for dialogue and celebrate collective experience. Peters and Waterman famously recommended that managers in business create myths and stories to help people understand what their business does.
I think we need to do far more than this. We need leaders to collectively and authentically understand the story that is happening in their organisation. Not just the good happy ever after story but also the lost and forgotten parts of the story that are lurking in the deep dark wood. Leaders need to engage with the story that is happening in the world around them, they need to engage actively in becoming responsible tellers of the story of the future. They need to make their organisation worth working for.
With that in mind … once upon a time … someone read a newsletter called ‘In Good Company’ - there was an article about an old coat, it ended by asking some questions...
What is the story of your organisation?
What is the story of the last project you worked on?
What is the story of your last email?
What is the story that is not being told about your organisation?
What story do you want to tell the world about your organisation?
What do you want to say about your place of work?
Is yours an organisation worth working for?... do you know what the story is or is it just an old leather coat.
Dominic Fitch is Impact’s Head of Creative Change.