Telling stories

Storytelling is all the rage nowadays. There are many places where one can learn how to tell one’s story, orally or in writing. More and more people are interested in sharing their stories through life books, or through online posts on different social media channels. Organisations and leaders are using stories as a means to convey their messages.

I experienced the power of stories first-hand some time ago at the annual high-level meeting of the Dutch Ombudsman. In this event the Ombudsman highlights the main issues of this annual report, in front of his target group: CEOs of public institutions and high-level civil servants. He doesn’t do this by sharing facts and figures, even if he does not leave those out. His focus is on the impact of the cases he deals with and on creating a sense of urgency to tackle the issues at hand. For this, he uses stories.

This year I was invited to share my story in a dialogue with the CEO of the institution I was complaining about. When I approached the Ombudsman I started by writing a long, long piece about what happened, what had gone wrong and how, and what should have happened, in my opinion. It was a technical case, and my letter was technical and full of legal humbug. I wanted this case to be taken seriously, and thought a serious approach was required, including using legal terms to make sure it was clear that I knew what I was talking about.

A serious case requires a serious approach

A serious case requires a serious approach

When I was invited to share my case at this annual event, it quickly became clear that this was not the way I was supposed to present it; I was supposed to tell a story. A story in three short pieces, to be prompted by the event’s host. After each of my pieces, the CEO would have a piece, built around the same three questions: What happened in laymen’s terms? What did this mean in daily life? What are lessons (to be) learned? In all, we had around 10 minutes. Ten minutes divided by two? For my 9 page-case?????? Impossible!

Well, it turned out it was possible. And the short version was stronger than the long one, I might add.

How did that happen?

Well, it worked out so well because of the format, and because of the great moderator of the event, and because of a very thorough preparation process.

Ombudslezing

In the preparation process I went through my case several times with a colleague of the moderator. She had read my 9 pages thoroughly and asked detailed questions. She made it clear she understood the issues, the case and my concerns.

Then she explained that we should identify the essence of it all, in order to get my message across. And we started focusing on the story.

The story is not about procedures and legal intricacies. The story is about how it is to count on a certain income and not to get it for almost a year. The story is about not knowing whether this wrong will ever be put right. The story is about the bills that pile up, the letters received and sent. The hope that thrives when at some stage someone says you’re right. And about the despair when it turns out that this stage was not the final stage. The essence is about the impact the functioning of a public institution has on an ordinary person, and the feeling that person gets that they are a number, not a human being.

Step by step my case became a story and on the event itself, I was my story, even if it was not a story about me. And the funny thing was, the CEO got into the story, too. And had gotten into it in his preparation process in fact. So while I had thought we were adversaries, fighting our own cause against each other, we became a common story, together. The power of this process was overwhelming, thanks to the great preparation and implementation from the side of the Ombudsman and the moderator of the day, Margriet Vroomans, and her colleague Esmeralda Böhm.

If you want to know how you could use storytelling in your work as facilitator, trainer or (project) manager, you should participate in the one-day training Facilitating Storytelling – Tools for the Facilitator on 28 November 2013. Look here for more information in Dutch. If you’d like to have more information in English, contact me. The training can be conducted in English, if English speakers are signing up, so do feel welcome!

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