It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I spent the early part of my life in Nigeria, which has a rich tradition of story-telling, especially among the Hausa tribes of Northern Nigeria, who like to share ‘dilemma tales’ around the evening meal.

These are stories where there isn’t a prescribed ending. Instead, the audience is given a set of facts and a series of alternative outcomes, which they discuss to decide what should happen next.

In one story, for instance, a young man is treated badly by his cruel father, so he runs away. He is taken in by the kindly chief of a neighbouring village, who adopts him as his son and treats him well. But then, through a peculiar combination of circumstances, the real father and adoptive father find themselves pitted against one another. The boy is forced to choose which of them may live and which must die. Where should his loyalty lie?

In another story, the protagonist is a blind man, whose wife, mother and mother-in-law are also blind. Walking along the road one day, he stumbles over something and discovers, to his surprise, that it’s a working eye. He pops it in and, sight restored, finds six other eyes in the road. He gives two to his wife, but must then decide how to divide the remaining four eyes between five sockets. 

Should he risk his wife’s scorn by only giving one to her mother? Would it be better to upset his own mother? Or should he nobly keep just one eye for himself – but risk his wife finding him less attractive than potential two-eyed suitors? 

The stories serve a double purpose: as entertainment and as a kind of moral litmus test, a way to debate and establish cultural norms. It’s the same principle that makes Love Island compulsive viewing – and the reason why soap operas incorporate topical issues into their plot-lines. Because it gives people a chance to get involved. 

Stories are always more interesting to us when we feel involved in them. It’s a point eloquently explained in an article written some years ago by Jeremy Bullmore, the warmest and wisest man in advertising, who died this week:

Involvement seems to me to be the most important part of communication. 

If I do everything as the sender, the only thing left for the receiver to do is refute it, because the only contribution you can make is to disagree with me.

All good storytellers entice their receivers into willing and constructive collaboration. It’s a skilful, delicate and difficult thing to do – particularly in advertising where the pressures of committee and cost tend to favour the ‘explicit’, the ‘unambiguous’, the ‘message which just can’t fail to be understood’.

The explicit and the unambiguous shut out the recipient.

That’s every bit as true on the inside of an organisation as it is on the outside. 

Senior leaders often like the idea that they can bend a narrative to suit their chosen facts and then just keep hammering out a message until ‘everybody gets it.’ 

But they’re forgetting the most important rule of communication, which is that, when nobody’s listening, you’re not communicating.

As Jeremy Bullmore always understood, if you want people to be engaged with your story, you have to start by getting them involved.

Author: matthampshire

Author and consultant helping organisations communicate in a more authentic and engaging way.

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