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The Power of Story-telling

Whenever we discuss storytelling as a training technique, I am reminded of an experience at one of my previous workplaces. The organization was based in Switzerland and was an industry leader. But wasn’t doing too well under the twin pressures of the European recession and lower priced competing products. A new CEO had recently been brought on-board to turn this situation around. The CEO was Swiss, but had been working in the U.S.A for the majority of his career. He told us this story in his first global town hall meeting:

A Swiss and an American explorer were resting on the African veld, when they suddenly saw a lion running towards them ready for a chase. The American explorer started running for his life, but the Swiss paused to first put on his shoes. Said the American, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a lion!” To which the Swiss replied, “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I only have to outrun you.”

This is not a new story; in fact, it is a retake on an old Comedy Central joke. But it served two critical purposes.

First, the CEO addressed all concerns that he was too American, had forgotten the Swiss way of working, and would impose an American work culture in the organization. Truth be told, he had indeed been hired based on the impressive results he had achieved in USA, and was expected to achieve similar results in Switzerland. And down the line, he did help us change many of the processes and mind-sets we were used to. But there were no more complaints about him imposing an American work culture- with one small story the new CEO had proven his Swiss roots.

Second, the CEO used this story to introduce a change in market strategy. At that time, we were trying to compete with too many competitors in too many sectors, and not being able to focus on any. This story helped us to understand the business value of focusing on a few, niche, products.

There were no slides, no handouts, no long speeches. But we all remembered the story. I realized from this experience that storytelling can be an inspiring and memorable tool, especially for mentoring and informal training. Stories are powerful because people can picture them, remember them, and retell them.

While using storytelling in training, my experience has been that it is not useful to elicit a merely ‘passive’ emotion, however positive, for e.g: serenity, interest, acceptance, etc. A more active emotion- either positive or negative- makes the learning more memorable. For e.g: if we are to use the Wheel of Emotion (Robert Plutchik, 1980, see below), the outer-most layer is not as useful as the two inner layers (joy, trust, anger, rage, admiration, amazement).

Wheel of Emotion

Categories: Theories

Swati Sengupta

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