As part of the recent Victorian Small Business Festival, I listened in on a webinar about story telling presented by Valerie Khoo. Whilst story telling is as old as language, Valerie asserts that it’s an art form that is rapidly falling by the wayside in this day of data, spreadsheets, graphs and the like. When you stop and think about it, a powerpoint presentation with a whole heap of charts and tables only goes so far in terms of communicating with an audience. It might tick the boxes in terms of people having an awareness of the subject, but do they really have an understanding of the issues, will they remember any of the content when they walk out the door, and, importantly, will they take action based on what you’ve said?
I’m sure that we can all cite examples of inspiring leaders who have been great at story telling. There are those that inspire great social change: Martin Luther King and his “I have a dream” speech, a charity CEO telling stories of what they have witnessed in a disaster setting and calling on you to donate or volunteer, or it might have been your favourite school teacher whose stories led you on a path to choose your career. My Dad has always been a great one for story telling – rolling out the tales from his childhood (and mine too!). My Dad had a stint in hospital recently and, whilst it was a generally difficult time, one of the benefits of that was having some time to just sit and chat with him. He was revisiting some of the old stories, and came up with some that I hadn’t heard before (like the time when my mild mannered parent lost his temper during a football final and had words with the umpire (!) He, er, made his point apparently and the decision was changed!) I remember that it was a time when I was struggling with some challenges at work and Dad had a couple of anecdotes from his own work life that gave me some perspective on things, plus it helped to know that I hadn’t been alone in these sorts of struggles.
Telling stories (or tales!) is interesting for accountants, as a lot of our professional credibility hinges on sticking to facts and figures. I have found however, that some of Valerie’s advice has rung true, and I have enough personal anecdotes to share with people to create a ‘human interest story’ in the work that I do. As I have gotten more senior, I have particularly found that stories have been a useful part of my management toolkit. I have used them to inspire staff, sympathise with people, and to try and make financial information more compelling – a call to action where I could. Of course there’s a balance between telling an anecdote to impart a lesson, and constantly regaling people with war stories (okay, sometimes I got feedback that I did too much of the latter!) If preparing financial information is about assisting decision making, then it’s important that we equip decision makers with what they need. And maybe it’s the story that goes with the numbers that will resonate for them so they can get to the right decision.
What have been some compelling story telling experiences from your organisation? What about them compelled action?
PS Valerie Khoo is the founder of the Sydney Writers Centre. You can read more about her at http://valeriekhoo.com. By the way, she started her career as an accountant, and now she does a heap of story telling. I’m just saying…