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The power of story

It was a cold winters day. Thick snow still covering the ground, my breath acting like a wall of fog in front of me. I entered the car lot to meet the proprietor, to view the car I had arranged to see. He wasn't there yet, but instead stood another man, wrapped up in coat, hat and gloves like me. Sharing common ground of standing in the cold, waiting to purchase a car, we quickly began chatting and before long he started to tell me his story. Now we shared a common connection of modern day hunter gatherers, in our car pursuit, but before long the sharing of each of our stories about family and jobs formed other connections. Humans love a good story and we love to find out a bit about each other and what our story is. We are naturally nosey! But the importance of story is not just limited to being nosey. In leadership, 'story' is a powerful tool that we can use to make a common connection and relationship with individuals, and also for building team and common purpose as an organisation.

The story of Beaky - "Do you remember when?"

Squeals of laughter echoed down the corridor. Tears streaming down my face, my senior member of staff laughing so her sides were hurting, as we recounted the time that a troubled Year 6 child on a 'managed move' to our school got hold of my parrot puppet called Beaky and then pecked my tie, as I waited patiently for her to hand it back and come back into my office. The thought of a girl, with a brightly coloured bird puppet which is pecking a 6ft 2, 20 stone fully suited, bald man's tie is amusing. However, to fully understand the power of this story, you need to go to the start of the conversation. I was the headteacher of a 650 place primary school and over the last 10 years we had seen an increasing number of children who struggled to manage their behaviour enter the school. My Senior Teacher and I had been talking about challenging behaviour and how we had improved children's behaviour. As often happens in this kind of conversation, one of us had used the 'do you remember when . .? ' statement. Then, of course, the joint recounting of the event not only brought out bursts of laughter, but the use of story was part of reminding each other of our shared purpose. In this case, the purpose of improving children's behaviour. These stories, recounting times journeyed together, are a key glue to bind staff together for the next steps on that journey. (In case you wondered, the bird was safely returned to my office within the time frame and the child managed to stay with us until the end of term before transferring to high school.)

Common Purpose

Dr Tim O'Brien, in his book 'Inner Story: Understand your mind. Change your world', talks about the importance of story for team. Being clear on your story, your journey from the past and the story you want to tell in the next chapters of your life gives purpose and strength. Howard Gardner describes leadership as, 'the ability to tell a story that affects the thoughts, feelings and actions of others." Once you are clear on your story, you can help create the story of your organisation and there is no better way than using story to create this. Story reminds you of your common purpose, your shared experience. I see telling a 'story' of shared experience, acting like a yoke on an oxen, helping you continue the journey travelled together. Just before Christmas, I met with 7 ex colleagues, and as we chatted over dinner about what was happening for us now, the conversation soon turned to story recounts of the journey we travelled together over 10 years. Stories of challenges we faced, recounts of funny moments we had. All of which served to remind us of the commonality we still shared based around the values that we have and the encouragement to still keep living them out. Story is key for promoting values in your organisation and for spreading them wider afield. Try the 'do you remember when . . ?' question in a conversation this week. How do you feel after you have recounted? There is normally a renewed sense of purpose. If you want to pull your team together, then recounting a story from the past or the present that extols the values or purpose you want to see, will work wonders.


Steve Adams, in his book 'The Centre Brain : 5 Prompts To Persuasive Power', explains how one of the 5 ways to form connection with people for an idea is through 'pictorialising', creating a picture in someone's mind. Story has the power to persuade and to engage. Telling a story of something that extols the values you want in the organisation, creates connection with the listener far more than just saying, 'please show this value'. For example, if you want the value of having a good heart for others, telling the story of TOMS shoes and how Blake Mycoskie started TOMS shoes in response to poverty he saw and how he established a show company that donates shoes to a child for every pair that you buy, will buy far more emotional connection than just saying, "I want us all to all be people focused." When you can tell a story extolling the virtues of someone in the organisation, this is even more powerful.

In some of my training I remind people of the Simon Sinek work on the importance of the 'Why'. As part of this I show two overlapping hoops to explain the importance of your 'why' engaging with other people's 'why'. One of the key ways that we can do this is tell story that finds that common interest or intersection.

So, try telling a few stories this week when you meet with colleagues, when you feel your organisation is losing momentum, when spirits towards a goal are low, when you feel yourself flagging. Story has a power of connection.

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