In the Spotlight

The Roffey Park journal Spotlight recently featured a question and answer session with Geoff Mead on the subject of storytelling and organisational development.

What originally triggered your interest in storytelling as an aspect of OD?

Some years ago I came to a Roffey Park conference on complexity in organisations. Two storytellers, Ashley Ramsden and Bernard Kelly, had been invited to tell traditional stories after dinner. I was a bit sceptical at first  – but within minutes I was captivated. The entire room – thirty or so consultants and executives – was caught up by the power of these stories. As soon as the performance was over I rushed up to Ashley and Bernard and wanted to know all about what they did and how I could learn to do it too. I attended a number of courses and then trained full-time for three months at their storytelling school. As I learned more about storytelling I discovered that not only is there a widespread revival of the art of traditional storytelling but that there is also a tremendous growth of interest in narrative and story in many other fields – both academic and organisational – which I have been exploring ever since.

What OD need do you believe that storytelling fits?

Stories have a unique ability to bring an organisation’s past, present and future to life, to help people recognise what’s really going on around them and to express what really matters. They also carry the culture of an organisation: poet and author Ben Okri says Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals or nations live by and you change the individuals and nations themselves. It is the same with organisations: stories have immense power to shape our imagination of what is possible. Leaders, consultants and anyone interested in developing organisations needs to understand how stories work – and how to tell them.

What kind of impact do you see on people after they’ve learned about storytelling?

Usually I see an increased openness and a sense of connection – sharing stories helps to create a real sense of community in an organisation. I find that individual story coaching confronts people with some tough questions: What really matters to me? How can I communicate what is important to me and to the organisation in a clear and impactful way? Communication becomes simpler and more direct, and leaders become more ‘human’ and are seen as people rather than as distant figures.

Do you ever meet with cynicism in organisations when you introduce the idea of storytelling?

I would say scepticism rather than cynicism – and even then it is more likely to be a concern about  what other people might think. People can be a bit nervous about the idea of storytelling but once they experience it for themselves, they make it their own. Initially there might be some fear of looking foolish, but storytelling is so basic to our nature that invariably people embrace it far faster than they might expect.

How do you ‘break the ice’ in your workshops?

I gently re-introduce people to their innate ability to tell stories: to recognise the storyteller in themselves. Instead of trying to persuade them I let them experience it first-hand in a more light-hearted fashion – for example through a connection to childhood memories of storytelling – and this gives them the chance to embrace the concept in their own time. Then we can get down to the serious work!

Are there any potential issues around storytelling that an organisation should be aware of?

Stories must always be told with integrity – this is not about propaganda or “spin”. Fortunately, most people can smell a fishy story a mile off so such attempts to use stories in this way tend to backfire. However, when the “right” stories are delivered with authenticity, authority and integrity they can have a tremendously positive effect.

Storytelling is a rich and complex field and one that is worthy of a lifetime’s study – but at the same time it is very simple. However this does not make it easy or trivial and it is not something to use carelessly or instrumentally.  As fellow storyteller and friend Alexander MacKenzie says, it’s all about risking the heart.