Somebody was speaking to me today about how important story telling is for a speaker, and I couldn’t agree more. The Cox Report on English teaching, like most Government sponsored reports, was full of well meaning waffle, but it did have one blindingly brilliant sentence in it: “Narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind”.
And so it is not only in public speaking that telling stories is critical, it’s critical all the time – it’s primary in fact; for only when we tell the story and move away from the abstractions of our language that we really convey the message that we intend.
Take the other day. I was on a Skype call to a friend and they had a business problem. They said to me, “James, I am not sure what to do. I have this product which I acquired a year ago – it’s going well, although I need to do more marketing. But there is this new product and I am sure there is an even bigger market for it, and I could add it easily to my portfolio, although it is quite an investment to acquire. What should I do?”
What a decision! I don’t know – what should he do? I could analyse further, drill down and find out a little more may be, and from that provide a more informed opinion. But the trouble with a more informed opinion is – it is only an opinion; but if I drill down enough I will be giving advice. And then if he takes it and I am wrong … ultimately he needs to make the decision. Enter the story.
I say, rhetorically, do you remember World War II, my friend? He laughs. I have always thought, rightly or wrongly, that the biggest single reason why Hitler lost the war was at Moscow. Remember he was at the gates – his whole army could have taken the capital and sent Stalin fleeing to Siberia where with the best will in the world conducting operations would have been to say the least much trickier. But at that crucial moment when Hitler needed to tell his Generals to take the capital, he did something else.
He ordered them to take Moscow AND he ordered them to take Leningrad and Stalingrad as well. Against the advice of his own Generals he split his army in three parts and from one attack on one objective, three much smaller German armies attacked three widely separated objectives.
The rest is history as they say, for Hitler failed to take Moscow, failed to take Leningrad, and most significantly failed to take Stalingrad – Stalingrad being really the point where the whole tide of the war turned against him. The War was there for the winning, but instead of focusing his forces, Hitler in an act of blind arrogance and self-delusion threw it all away.
So it is in business. Do we have the resources to fight a war in more than one market? Are we dividing and weakening our capabilities? Can we follow this through? Thus I ask myself.
“Ah!” he said. He understood. I didn’t know his answer, but the story focused his mind on what he needed to do. And the rest is history.