Invoking the Power of Story


How a movie became a sword

China was the biggest importer of the planet’s trash. Where, tens of millions of tonnes of the world’s rubbish was trucked, shipped and flown to various cities around the country, where it was dumped, to be sorted, recycled or re-dumped. When you read this paragraph, it is difficult to imagine the real-life implications of it. But, in 2016, film director Wang Jilang released a documentary film called Plastic China – a labour of love that he’d been working on for four years.

The film swung the spotlight on an 11-year old Chinese girl, Yi-Jie, as she spent the day in, day out, working in her father’s trash processing facility. Potent scenes showed how she would brush her hair, dipping it in a tank filled with trash, even washing her face in the putrid greywater. She would cut cartoon characters from discarded toy packaging to fashion toys with which she would play during her short breaks. Every day, she and her family would live on this rubbish mound, working amidst the waste of the world, and breathing in the toxic fumes from the machines that would melt and soak plastic, turning it into sludge and then producing hardened pellets.

The film hit the international circuit where it was an instant success, winning accolades at film festivals. Importantly, it spread like wildfire through China, where the authorities eventually banned it. But, not before it enraged the Chinese public who could now put a face to the story. Within a very short space of time, the Chinese government launched a nationwide programme, called National Sword, that set out to overhaul and modernise the recycling industry.

Stories – the human success

The simple story is what makes us human. No other animal has this ability to use its power. It is what made us collaborate in large groups, enabling us to rapidly rise to the apex of the food chain, from whence, we began to rule the entire planet.

Stories created culture. They built communities and nations. With a simple story, a young man could be moved to leave the home of his parents, or his young wife, take up arms and go off to war, risking life and limb to defend that story. In 1940, Sir Winston Churchill rose to the dispatch box in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, as the country’s new Prime Minister and made a speech that contains these words:

“We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.

We shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

These words, invoked a compelling story and a vision of bravery and victory, of good prevailing over evil. And they powered the Allied Forces through their immense battle with the German military machine.

There are countless examples of how fiction transforms reality. The Pay It Forward Foundation was launched in September 2000 on the back of the novel Pay It Forward – that eventually became a movie, starring Kevin Spacey. In the story, a young boy begins a chain reaction of good deeds by paying a good deed forward three times. This foundation has already helped to fund many schools, hospitals and helped out a multitude of people in need — all, from a simple story about a boy.

How story-telling can help transform your organisation

What worked for Churchill and the Allied Forces, will work for any organisation, company – or individual. Here are some tips for getting the power of story to work for you.

Make people relate to a character

Let’s say you’re having a conversation about the benefit of medical insurance. You could present impressive-looking slides and data, with points that make a case for the product. Or, you could tell the story of a young woman, in the prime of her life, who got struck by cancer. Healthy and fit, she never thought he’d get sick. Fortunately, after months of treatment, she went into remission, but the costs were so massive she had to sell almost all her possessions—including her apartment. By telling the story of this woman, you don’t need boring slides. You’ve made the case through an example anyone can relate to—even if they were sitting around a dinner table.

Make it personal

Stories are more powerful when the person who tells it has actually experienced it. It opens the mind of the listener on a primal level because the evolutionary advantage of story-telling is that we all learn from each other how to survive. When you tell a story about how you coped with something, we are all interested to hear because somewhere in the future we may need this same information.

Enshrine story-telling in your organisation

Encourage everyone in the organisation to tell the stories about your organisation and its day-to-day activities—the good, and also the bad. And make sure that everyone can contribute. The smallest anecdote from a call-center agent can alert the management of a significant systemic failure. The bad stories are teaching moments; the good stories are reasons to celebrate.

What’s your story?

Embrace the power of story in your organisation today. Use it to shape the future. Stories can teach, inform and most importantly, inspire people to greatness. On 12 September 1962, the young American President, John F. Kennedy made a speech at the Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas in which he outlined the vision to land a man on the Moon.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And we did. We did go to the Moon. Where will you go?

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