Once upon a time, there was a very powerful and easy-to-use tool that many people used to connect with others, inspire, influence, and motivate them yet few people use it in the workplace. What is it? It’s the art of storytelling.
Stories come in many varieties from myths and legends to fairy tales and fables, and they’ve been used by humans to pass on their triumphs, values and desires, as well as their failures, prejudices and hatreds. They’ve been used for centuries and have become an intrinsic part of our society. It’s even believed that storytelling defines humanity because we’re are the only animals that can create and tell stories. Best-selling novelist and blockbuster directors understand the power of stories, yet few people utilise them in the workplace despite them being such a simple and effective tool. And what’s more, they’re free!
Head and Heart Matters
Many people at work stick to the facts and figures yet rarely connect with others on an emotional level. This is as true in presentations and meetings as it is in management and leadership. However, just connecting with another person’s intellect is rarely effective in persuading or influencing them, however if you connect with them on an emotional level, you can inspire them to take action or even change their behaviour. It’s incredibly powerful.
Suppose I tell you that 100% of presentations are more effective when the presenter tells a story.
Does this motivate you to include a story in your presentation? Probably not. How about:
“Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a salesman who travelled the countryside, peddling his wares. Everyone loved his product except the evil king, who wanted to do away with it. One day the king said, “This product is ruining my kingdom and I want to destroy it. If anyone has a reason for why this product should live, let him come hither and speak now.” Out of the crowd came a voice. “I think this product is great and I can prove it,” said the brave salesman. “Then come to my palace tomorrow morning and prove to me why this is so,” said the king. And so the salesman went home and prepared PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide filled with endless statistics and dizzying market projection graphs.
The next day, the salesman turned up at the palace. “Show me why I should spare your miserable product,” said the king. The salesmen opened his trusty laptop and started to plough through his heaping deck of slides. Starting with a company background, the salesman went on to show market trend graphs, customer case studies, and then analyst quotes. The king began to squirm on his throne. When a return on investment spreadsheet appeared on slide 47, the king finally had enough. “Off with your head,” said the king. “Originally, I only wanted to kill your product, but this presentation is criminal.” (1)
Are you a tad more convinced now?
As I like to use current events to highlight my point, I am going to use the latest episode of Game of Thrones to illustrate how storytelling can transmit subtle messages and influence the viewer to consider deeper meanings of morality.
Spoiler Alert: Do not read any further if you have not seen ‘Game of Thrones: Season 8 Episode 5’ and you intend to.
For those of you who don’t know, Game of Thrones is a long-running fantasy television series based on the best-selling books by George R R Martin. It’s been running since 2011 and episode five – the penultimate final episode – has just been aired this week on Sky Atlantic. From looking online – I can sense that many people are perplexed about two main things: the meaning of the ending where Arya rides off on a white horse, and how Daenerys could become so monstrous and turn into the “mad Queen”, and so I thought I would attempt to uncover the underlying meanings. (I would like to highlight that what follows is only my interpretation, which might or might not be correct, but it demonstrates how human beings seek to derive meaning from stories, and how they can often mean different things to different people.) Here goes…
I think that the essence of this episode is that the writers / producers are making the characters choose between love and hate. Those who choose love are able to put their hatred and personal losses aside and focus on the bigger picture, while those who choose hate are not able to get past their vengeful thoughts and can only focus on destroying innocent lives as well as those who they think deserve it. It is a story about revenge and how it can eat people alive or set them free if they choose forgiveness instead.
The key to my interpretation is when Sandor “The Hound” Clegane says to Arya, “You think you’ve wanted revenge for a long time, well I’ve been at it all my life, it’s all I care about and look at me. You want to be like me?” Arya decides she doesn’t want to be like “The Hound” or die, and so she leaves him, indicating that she chooses life and forgiveness over death and revenge.
Revenge or Forgiveness
The consequences of hate and revenge are then highlighted when Sandor finally fulfils his long-awaited quest to destroy his brother, Gregor, but no matter how many times he stabs him with his sword, he does not die. In the end, the only way for Sandor to kill his brother is to throw them both off the tower’s edge into the burning ground below. The lesson perhaps being that revenge harms the person wanting revenge as much as it harms the other person? Or the only way to end revenge – if you don’t choose forgiveness – is death.
The Mad Queen
This is also why I think that the writers of GOT decided that Daenerys would destroy King’s Landing. The Queen knew that the city had surrendered and that she’d won yet there is a scene where she is on her dragon hovering above the city looking as if she’s contemplating her next move. She can choose to stop, which means she would be a merciful and loving ruler who is capable of forgiveness, or she can choose to use her Dragon’s firepower to wreak havoc on a defenceless city, which means she chooses revenge for the deaths of her beloved Missandei and Jorah Mormont. Her face says it all when she decides the latter.
Compare this to Arya who decides to reject revenge by saving herself instead of pursuing Cersei. In the process of escape, she also tries to save others. I believe the white horse is a symbol of this desire to live free of revenge and hatred and choosing hope and love instead.
Tyrion Lannister also chooses love when he sets his brother free on the proviso that he finds Cersei and helps them both to escape so they can start a new life together. While Tyrion wants to save his brother to repay his debt to Jaime, who freed him on the eve of his execution ordered by Cersei, it makes little sense that he would want him to help Cersei escape; the evil sister who had made his life hell as well as trying to have him killed a few times. It doesn’t make sense until we look at it through the lens that – despite everything Cersei did to him – Tyrion also chose love and forgiveness over hate and revenge. He was thinking of the greater good and a way to save his brother and “tens of thousands of innocence” even at the risk of his own life (his Queen – Daenerys Targaryen – would have him executed if she found out that he’s released Jaime).
So in the final scene where Arya looks at the burnt remains of a mother hugging her child holding a charred black toy horse, and she climbs onto the back of a magnificent white horse, I believe that this is a symbol for hope, forgiveness and love. But it is only my belief.
Whatever the truth is, it left me feeling that there is hope if more people can choose forgiveness over revenge, and the greater good over personal gain.
So, for me, this demonstrates the immense value in stories because they deliver powerful messages to the receiver, yet this age-old tradition is often over-looked in the workplace.
What story could you tell a colleague to connect with them, inspire and motivate or even change their behaviour with?