Once Upon a Time

Can you tell me a story?

We all love a good story.

I grew up in rural Africa, amidst a rich culture of storytelling and at a young age I was conferred with the honorific of “imbongi” by our local people. In Zulu culture, the word is often reserved for those that change the path of the future by telling stories with meaning, caution, hope and vision.

The nomadic storyteller (the Imbongi) would arrive at a village where they would be welcomed by the circle of elders. They would sit for a while and listen to the issues facing the community, occasionally asking questions about the direction and outcomes they would like to see come about – perhaps to settle a dispute with a neighbouring village; to become more prosperous as a community; to stem the drain of the youth to the cities; to strengthen the core values of their culture which the youth was rebelling against and so forth.

The imbongi would then take some time to wander through the village, making their own observations and talking to the villagers to see if there was a disconnect between the leadership and the community and how they could bring them closer to unity and determine a way forward. Later that night, the whole village would assemble to listen to the stories that the Imbongi would tell – some would be cautionary tales of villages that had faced similar circumstances and had taken a path that hadn’t ended well. Others would sound like fairytales of visions that had come true through community effort and everyone lived a prosperous life. With varying measures of “carrot and stick”, the Imbongi would weave a tale that resonated with the audience and galvanised them into action.

For a few days or weeks after, the Imbongi would make themselves available for consultation by the elders and villagers alike – to answer questions and provide deeper advice and insight into the way forward, reinforcing the messages and fine tuning the path until they were confident that the village was set on a new course of action – at which point they would set out to the next village to share the stories and lessons learned with the next community so that hopefully, the mistakes of the past would not be repeated in the future.

In telling this story, the Imbongi was simply following years of experience and intuition, whereas I have of course used a vocabulary that will be familiar to modern business and the parallels to a “trusted business advisor” should be quite obvious.

Over the last 30 years in business, I’ve used these same skills to bring to life the implications and consequences of technology change for employers, customers and audiences the world over, helping them to envisage their own story of the future as they imagine themselves as the hero, the villain, the victim, the protagonist, the helpless bystander.

In recent years, the concept of business storytelling has gained increased interest as brands have latched onto the fact that stories increase customer engagement and a good story fuels customer advocacy and loyalty, but there are countless areas within the business that storytelling can be used as a powerful catalyst for change and transformation.

I have personally used stories for:-

  • Envisioning the future
  • Strategy and scenario planning
  • Inspiring change and transformation
  • Raising R&D funding for new projects
  • Customer experience journey mapping
  • Innovation stimulation and new product ideation
  • Communicating complex ideas to a non-technical audience
  • Helping sales teams develop their “solution sales” story for customer pitches
  • Narrative development for marketing brand amplification and increased audience resonance
  • Getting boards of directors, internal employees and suppliers emotionally connected to new concepts and ideas

Most recently, I spent time with a young startup to help develop their pitch during Startupbootcamp. I’ve heard hundreds (possibly thousands) of product and proposition pitches over the years and often looked around the room to see the investment board or VC’s and angels focussed on their phones and laptops rather than on the pitch. But their focus changes when they hear a good story, one that resonates with them, one where they can see themselves in the story. Early stage investment is very often an emotional commitment after all.

Is the story of your future a fairytale with a happy ending? Is it a sci-fi that involves unimaginable technology progress? Is it a romance where you get together with a new partner and together create something magical for your customers? Or is it a horror story where your competition or new entrants steal your customers out from under your nose?

Whatever the story of your future is, I’d love to hear it!


(I regularly run interactive “skills transfer” storytelling workshops which are a fantastic, enlightening and inspirational group activity – please get in touch if you’d like to find out more)


Header photo credit: steveczajka via Foter.com / CC BY