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  • Once upon a time

Once upon a time

26 September 2021

Gerard Rahman, Partner |

I confess I struggle with communication. Perhaps, I may not be alone on this one. But why is communication so important? Well, in my mind, any team works better when everyone within it has the same information. Especially, when it is a group of teenagers in a haunted house. I scream hopelessly at the TV “Don’t split up!” “Please don’t go upstairs” “No, not the cellar!” Whilst it is true that businesses generally do not operate within haunted houses, there is a surprising number of similarities with this genre. Especially, when it comes to communication. Let me tell you a story.

Over the last decade, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to hold an audience’s attention. Regardless, of who is in the audience. I was discussing this recently with a colleague and he pointed out it is a challenge for everyone. In cinemas, they ask the audience to switch off their phones before the movie starts. Think about that. The audience is invested. They have travelled to the cinema at the appointed time, for this is not some video on demand. They spent their own money on a ticket. And yet, the audience is asked to be polite and pay attention. Even former prime ministers on the after dinner speaking circuit have commented that these days it is difficult to keep the front row engaged, much less the back row.

My colleague was right, but I felt frustrated. I could not shake the frustration that I want to communicate, and yet, I am so ill prepared to communicate. In my early days (before email became common place), I’d go to the notice board to read the latest typed memos. Everyone did. But that world has gone. But do you know, there was something else around at that time. It was in the kitchen at work. People would tell stories.

I do remember excitedly going to work, pulling up a chair, holding hot sweet tea in both hands and listening to the stories. I literally was at the edge of my seat as someone seemingly much older than me would recount an experience. Some storytellers would lean against the kitchen door frame with a perfect balance of drama and presence without even trying. Other storytellers would wave a fork with the precision of an orchestral conductor as they intermittently looked up from their breakfast to land a point. I loved how people would join in the storytelling with side notes to the main story, like a beautifully choregraphed jigsaw puzzle coming together.

For me, these stories illustrated the culture of where I worked. How indeed I was to behave within that culture. And underlying any culture, is a set of values. These stories brought those values to life. In a way I could relate to and learn from. So, does this help me now? Good question. I was one of the panelists at an event and it was my turn to speak. I started with “Once upon a time” and noticed how the audience looked up as I did all those years ago in the kitchen. It was like a trigger. Just like how a child’s eyes widen expectedly when a parent says those words. I guess in truth, we all like stories. Perhaps we all are stories. It wasn’t an original idea to start like that, but it certainly showed me something.

Once I accepted that successful communication is about saying the same thing in multiple ways and through multiple channels, it helped me let go of my frustration. Even today, I will need to provide information on a modern version of the notice board. But because of our childhood, there will always be space for a story, regardless of how you tell it, if it touches, inspires, provokes, and entertains. Try it one day.

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