Storytelling and Problem-Solving

The other day I came across a quotation attributed to Pablo Picasso: “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”

He sounds so cheerful about it, doesn’t he? But problem-solving is hard. If tackling something were easy, I suppose we wouldn’t call it a problem.

Fortunately, we have at our disposal a way to help our colleagues and audiences tackle their challenges: We can tell stories.

Now, I know about the old canard that when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Yes, I talk about storytelling a lot. But I’m not the only person who sees stories as a great tool for problem-solving. Here I quote from the gospel of Make It Stick by the marketing evangelists Chip Heath and Dan Heath:

“Stories are like mental flight simulators; they allow us to rehearse problems and become better at dealing with them.”

Stories get into our brains in a very different way than facts do. And they stay there—they’re “sticky,” in the Heaths’ term.   Certain skills may need to be taught more analytically, but not every problem can be solved with a calculator.

I write a lot about business ethics for my clients—it’s one of my favorite topics. Virtually every company has developed a Code of Conduct it expects its employees to adhere to. And some industries have regulations imposed on them by government or other agencies. Employees sign contracts specifying that they’ve read and understood this information, but no one could possibly retain all of it. You don’t remember rules; you remember stories.

Think of the 10 Commandments—arguably the most famous and widely read “Code of Conduct” in the world. Can you list them all? If you’re like most people, you’ll get through two or three at the most.

The story of the 10 Commandments is easy to remember—Moses (or, depending on your age and degree of religiosity, Charlton Heston) climbs the mountain alone, while his people wait expectantly below. The Lord descends in a pillar of smoke and delivers two stone tablets containing the law. This is powerful stuff; no Ethics & Compliance Department can compare.

And yet you still can’t name all 10 without Googling.

So, how do you make your corporate “commandments” stickier? Turn them into stories.

Tell cautionary tales about how rule-breakers meet their fate. Tell funny stories—yes, I said funny stories. I know ethics is serious business, but do you want people to remember your stories or not? So tell stories that will make your listeners or readers smile, even as they store the information in their mental “don’t do this” file. Tell real stories—your own or others’—that get at the emotions involved: the frustration at being confronted with an unethical behavior, the dismay of needing to sort through the numerous “gray areas” we encounter every day to find the path to something closer to the right decision.

What do you think about when you hit those gray areas? Do you mentally shuffle through hundreds of pages of regulations written in legalese? Or do you remember that story about Joe and how he handled a similar situation?

Tell stories. Early and often. You won’t regret it.

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