Sunday, October 17,1999
Life section: Page 7

Tell your tale and watch it take off


Human beings have an innate need to tell and hear stories, and the best leaders are master users of stories and symbols. This is the way to go

More and more in the knowledge era, whether you work in a company or in government... you are going to have to answer a basic question: What's your story?
-- Michael J. Mazarr
Global Trends 2005

TELL a story. It's what makes a speech reach out to more people.

That is the suggestion my colleague Chua Lee Hoong made to members of parliament in her From The Gallery column in The Straits Times last Wednesday.

"People love stories. Anecdotes, personal experiences, encounters related by constituents -- these are the stuff that stay in the memory long after the intellectual arguments have faded," she said.

Coincidentally, over in The Business Times on Tuesday, in a comment piece which examined the reported delay of the flotation of Raffles Holdings, the fearless Lee Han Shih quoted a senior stockbroker as saying: "There is no story."

According to the stockbroker, a new issue sells by one of two things -- either good growth potential (a good story) or price.

Lee quoted him as part of his argument that the DBS Land's hotel arm is an awkward entity whose potential is fuzzy.

Raffles Holdings' comeback was prompt, carried in BT on Thursday. Among other things, its letter maintained that the hotel company had "a compelling story to tell", and went on to tell that story briefly but clearly, in four tight paragraphs.

That companies have to have compelling stories to tell is a point asserted by Michael Mazarr whose study of the likely trends to come in the next decade carried out at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, is published in the book, Global Trends 2005 (St Martin's Press, 1999).

In a section titled Telling A Story, Mazarr suggests that a knowledge-era company needs to tell stories, to draw people into an on-going narrative.

"In an age when people are going to be drinking information from a fire hose, distinguishing one piece from the rest will be awfully hard. One important way to go about it will be telling a story," he says.

Storytelling is just as important inside a company. He quotes management guru Tom Peters as saying: "The best leaders, especially in chaotic conditions... almost without exception and at every level, are master users of stories and symbols."

Idealab founder Bill Gross gives all his employees equity in his company, partly because, he writes: "It involves a story.

"There's a protagonist (the company) and an antagonist (the competition); a struggle; and a victory and a hero. Equity means drama. Annuity, by contrast, is boring because you already know the ending. It's a dull story."

Idealab, based in California, is not so much a business as an incubator of businesses. Gross and about 20 core staff identify and develop ideas for Internet-based businesses.

Where they see a potential, they provide US$250,000 (S$422,000) in seed money and take an equity stake in the new firm. Everybody in the new firm gets some equity. Idealab then spins it off, and lets it fly.

How's that for a story of the new business paradigm?

NEW era or old, human beings have always been storytellers. Without stories, we would not be human or so maintains the Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox.

"All human beings have an innate need to tell and hear stories and to have a story to live by," he says in his 1973 book, The Seduction Of The Spirit.

I re-read parts of the book with its yellowed pages to prepare for this column and found it still as relevant, if not fresh.

As Cox points out, most religions begin as clusters of stories. Rabbis, saints, Zen masters and gurus of every persuasion convey their holy teachings by jokes, koans, parables, allegories, anecdotes and fables.

In his ministry, Jesus Christ utilised the fabric of images and stories and the institutional networks of communication of his day. Most of his teachings are parables or sayings.

"Even his so-called 'sermons' are seen by biblical scholars as latter assemblages of single utterances arising out of particular human situations. They are not abstract discourses delivered to faceless crowds without reference to particular events," says Cox.

Notice the author's repetition of the word, "particular". Storytelling is about the particular. It is about this person, this event, this thing. To arrive at the general, we must begin with the particular.

The infinite is known through the finite, the transcendent in the immanent, as Cox points out.

I remember Vladimir Nabokov's delightful quote: "As an artist and scholar, I prefer the specific detail to the generalisation, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam."

Yet, we must not stop at the particular, or we will end up like much of today's fiction writing which, because it does not move on to the general and tap into a larger humanity, fails to engage the reader.

Much of the new fiction is too precious about its particularity, it delights in its own pyrotechnics and treads too carefully the line of political correctness.

Thankfully, the new generation of Singaporean writers still locate their stories in a larger context of place and time that has relevance to their audience.

To look for accounts of the biggest story of the late 20th century, skip the literature shelves in the bookshop and go to the science and business sections instead.

The almost wholesale replacement of one way of life by another, which is what we are witnessing and what an epic it is, is not being chronicled and explained to us by novelists, but by scientists and the new business leaders instead.

And the device many of them employ, whether on their own or with the help of ghost-writers, is one that is as powerful as it is ancient -- personal testimony. "This is my story."

They start with the particular, their own experiences, then move beyond to make considered observations of the larger community and the world.

They tell, they demonstrate, they celebrate.

And in doing so, they are reaching out to a large audience.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia