Stories, metaphor and props: the ideal mix
In my office I have a 10-inch-high wooden elephant. It was given to me by a colleague returning from a visit to South Africa. He thought it would make me feel more at home. Or perhaps he thought it might encourage me to go home? Either way, I have kept that elephant for years, simply as office decoration. Lately, however, I have been putting it to different use. When I have to have a difficult conversation with a member of staff, I put the elephant on the table and say: ‘In this office, we always talk to the elephant in the room.’
The prop serves as an ideal metaphor that enables me to raise a difficult matter, one that everyone is aware of but does not address. It also does so with a dash of humour that lightens the moment. People laugh, but now we can get on with discussing the difficult issue.
A good metaphor, allied to a good prop, is a powerful way to communicate.
We use metaphor all the time. For example, we talk about ‘planting seeds’ or ‘being stabbed in the back’ or ‘missing a piece of the puzzle’. Everyone knows that we are not really planting seeds, nor really putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and, hopefully, not really sticking a knife in someone, but our audience understands exactly what we mean. Metaphor is an easy and visual analogy that can simplify the complex and provide a shortcut to understanding. Good communicators consciously use metaphor to engage the audience. However, they are highly aware of the danger of using metaphors that are so clichéd that they have lost meaning.
Metaphors such as ‘run out of steam’, ‘draw a line in the sand’, ‘level the playing field’ are in danger of being overused. Research shows that overused words and metaphors are simply ignored by the listener and lose their effectiveness.
To avoid this trap, all you have to do is put a twist on an old metaphor in order to use the familiarity that comes with it so as to engage the audience in a different way. Take the metaphor ‘kick things off’, for example. Sigh. Tired, isn’t it? You could provide a fresh twist to this by saying: ‘Let’s kick things off the right way… [pause…] and by right way I mean right off the edge of a cliff. We have to start again.’
Or how about ‘Finding a needle in a haystack… is easy when you’re holding the end of the thread to which it is attached’? It doesn’t take much to give a new twist to an old metaphor.
You could, if you want, use the metaphor of a football team – to get your point over. Let me give you an example. A recent poll of 23,000 employees from a number of companies and industries found that:
· Only 37 per cent said they had a clear understanding of what their organization was trying to achieve.
· Only one in five was enthusiastic about the organization’s goals.
· Only 15 per cent felt that their organization fully enabled them to execute.
· Only 20 per cent trusted their colleagues and were prepared to collaborate with them.
If this was a football team, it would mean seven of the 11 players didn’t know what they were on the field to do. Eight didn’t really want to be there. Only two felt they were able to do anything about winning, and only two were prepared to work with their team mates to achieve the goals. I ask you: How much of a chance does this team have of winning?
When you combine metaphor with prop and with good story you have a potent ability to engage.
Given the power of storytelling, it strikes me as really odd that some of the leaders I have spoken to simply don’t like the idea of telling ‘stories’. Perhaps they feel that stories are for children only and that they do not have a place in business? Instead of the word ‘stories’, they are often more comfortable with using the word ‘anecdotes’.
From my many interviews with leaders, I have collected hundreds of business stories. Whether these leaders described them as anecdotes or stories, made little difference to what they really were. These were what I now call ‘purposeful stories’.
And it was clear that these leaders really loved telling their stories because it was striking how, when they told them, their whole demeanour changed. They became more animated and expressive, they used their hands more, they leaned into me, and they became more authentic and persuasive. They became much more human when they resorted to stories, often being self-deprecating – talking to their personal quirks and failings. They used stories to tell me more about themselves. They spent even more time making heroes out of their staff in the stories they told.
I can remember every single one of these stories. When I studied them, I made three important discoveries. First, every story had a point, a provocation designed to stimulate thinking and action. Second, all the stories all had similar structures. Third, there were six places to look for stories.
Let’s look first at the concept of purposeful stories.