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Odd siblings: Fairy tales, cake mixes, and "springboard" business stories
Your audience wants something to do, flat characters to inhabit, or cake mixes that let them add eggs
Fairy tales have no place in business, we say. We’re business people, hard headed, realistic, and down to business. We’ve got money to make, things to do, people to hire, fire, and tolerate. We live in the real world.
Nonsense. What we dismiss as mere fairy tales are actually clever little beasts that make us do things. What’s more, they work on the same principle as cake mix pitch men used in 1950s TV ads, and what some skilled leaders use today.
Fairy tales invite the audience to imagine themselves as the characters in the tale — characters that do what the storyteller wants them to do. Tim Carmody explains in a recent blog post “How Fairy Tales Break All The Rules.”
Instead of demanding “round characters,” fairy tales embrace flat ones. …[F]airy tales operate with a surreal dream logic in abstract settings. Instead of starting [in the midst of things], they start “once upon a time.” Instead of “telling the story only you can tell,” fairy tales ask you to retell stories that have been told for centuries. So on and so forth.
Stephen Denning: Let your audience be characters who act out your ideas
The fairy tale genre has real applications in business. Stephen Denning explains in one of his books on business storytelling, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative. What he calls a “springboard story” works like a fairy tale in that its characters and events are “flat.” These little stories give scant detail — which in effect invites the audience’s little internal voices fill in.
The springboard story descends from the tradition of minimalist biblical parables and, yes, European folktale.
In these stories, there is what Max Luthi calls “depthlessness.” The persons depicted in these stories have no psychological richness or complexity. The subjective plane of the feelings and viewpoints of the characters is limited. The story typically has none of the sights and sounds and smells that Aristotle's Poetics considered essential for creating the reality of the story.
He tells about pitching an idea to upper-level executives who, after the presentation, had so identified with the idea that they talked about it as if they’d thought of it.
So go ahead and tell fairy tales to your business audience. Lay out your prescription for success — but give your audience enough room to imagine themselves as your story’s characters.
Just don’t say “fairy tales.”