Take your team to the future using a story

“Once upon a time there were two candle-makers in the town…”

This may seem like a unlikely start to an internal strategy presentation but believe me it’s a gem (see below if you are already hooked). Stories can mess with your mind. Stories are the trojan horse of language. Parables, myths, legends – the brightest and most successful thought leaders have been using them for thousands of years to mess with the minds of the masses, or giving it a more positive spin; communicating new, radical and difficult truths to a potentially resistant audience.

For us today the future has never seemed so new, radical and difficult so if you are a bright successful leader today with the challenge of steering a team through change then reach for a springboard story. Your challenge is help your team see the future that you can see. And when I say ‘see’ I really mean that: ‘see’, ‘feel’, ‘imagine’ the future, not intellecutally understand it. How can you create these pictures in people’s minds? A story taps into emotion and imagniation – just the places you need to reach.

When an audience hears a story they start to engage with the main character, they allow themselves to connect with his or her feelings and they try and imagine the world they inhabit, meanwhile within this story you are communicating some of those new, radical and difficult truths in the safe enviroment of this other ‘world’’. However the twist is that once the audience has voluntarily walked into that world they quickly realise it’s their own. Here’s some examples you can use

• an account from a completely different professional world where they have cracked an element your business is struggling with

• a small scale success or disaster within your business that drives the mind towards a future solution

• a parable from a completely different time and place that allows you to expose the essence of your most painful issues in a ‘safe’ place.

The term ‘spring board story, was coined by Stephen Denning who was tasked in 1996 with switching the vast organisation which was the World Bank from a money lending operation to a knowledge resource, as digital technology was emerging. Over a painful 18 months he discovered that figures, pie charts and PowerPoint did nothing to effect real change in the way people ‘saw’ the future but a simple true story about a charity worker in Zambia who was able to search for information on treating malaria using a specialist database, had enormous impact and created a appetite for change on a much more emotional and personal level. The story below is a parable but has the same stealthy persuasive powers. It was sent to me by my colleague, social media expert, Richard Stacy. Tuck it away, and think how such a story might help your business objectives.

Once upon a time there were two candle makers in the town. Candle maker number one was very successful. He lived and breathed wax and wicks, he was always thinking of new ways of making candles and new types of candle to make. His candles burnt the best and smoked the least and as a result he was able to charge a good price for them. He didn’t even need to have a shop in the high street – people just came to his workshop. Candle maker number two was also pretty successful. Frankly he wasn’t such a wax-head as the first candle maker. He didn’t spend all his time inventing new candles, he looked at what the first candle maker did, copied what people liked and sold it for a bit less. But he figured that everyone needed light after the sun went down and candles were pretty much the only way to get it. He also recognised that there was more to candles than just candle making – you needed candleholders, matches and tapers. He didn’t bother making these things – he bought them from a merchant in The Big City. Since he didn’t have a spacious and fancy workshop (he just made the candles in a shed behind his house) he had a small shop where he could put everything on display.

One day a traveller came to town. The traveller had with him a wonderful new invention: an oil lamp. He showed it to all the people in the marketplace and everyone was amazed. “Wow”, they said, “this does so much more than just a candle, you can adjust its’ brightness, it is easy to carry around, it is less likely to set fire to the curtains. Candle maker number one went home to his wife deeply troubled. “Wife”, he said “we have a real problem. We have to make a candle with adjustable brightness, that is easier to carry round and that won’t set fire to the curtains”. And he went straight to his workshop and his wife didn’t see him for five whole days. When he finally emerged he held aloft an enormous amazing contraption of wood and bits of metal and wicks and wax. “Mrs Robinson”, he said to his wife “your husband is a genius. Behold I have made a form of candle with adjustable brightness, that you can carry around and which won’t set fire to the curtains”. “Oh Heath”, she said, “I am so proud of you”.

Meanwhile, the other candle maker didn’t go home to his wife. He took the traveller to a local alehouse, bought him a few drinks and asked him where he got the oil lamp from. He then went home to his wife and said “Wife, I am off to The Big City. I may be gone a few days”. Five days later he returned and in his cart he had a big crate full of oil lamps. He put these in his shop window, beside the candles and the candleholders and then he took down the sign above his shop that said ‘Candle maker’ and replaced it with one that said ‘Lighting Shop’.

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