Tell them the right story

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Have you ever found yourself in a tight corner where you have to quickly convince another person about your message; to persuade someone and get that business; to convince and get approval or co-operation; or to establish your professional integrity? Needless to say, telling a story will get you instant results and it is even more important to tell the right story. Let me illustrate this with a recent personal experience I encountered with a group of workshop participants.

I put my storytelling skills to good use recently as a facilitator in a training programme on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for a brewery in Nigeria. The training featured slide presentations and syndicated case study sessions. I handled the application of Heineken’s Alcohol Policy for the brewery staff. This policy is a new CSR tool the brewery is using to demonstrate business integrity and good corporate governance. Heineken is one of the largest brewing groups in the world that makes great brands of alcoholic drinks.  The high point of this policy is two active words: “Drink responsibly.” The policy is now a global campaign in Heineken affiliate companies. It is all about telling consumers to drink in moderation and avoid the unpleasant consequences of getting drunk, becoming addicted to alcohol, or injuring your health. These risks have been the arrowhead of growing pressure groups worldwide that are opposing the production and marketing of alcoholic and tobacco products.

In essence, the Alcohol Policy has four cardinal objectives:

  • To promote responsible consumption of alcohol;
  • prevent misuse and abuse;
  • to show that alcohol is for enjoyment and socializing; and,
  • to ensure sustainability of the breweries.

My message to my trainees was clear. Corporate Social Responsibility is all about constant dialogue with your various stakeholders. It is also about corporate storytelling. You must tell your value stories; stories about how-you operate and other stories so as to remain competitive in the marketplace. If you don’t tell your story and regulate your industry, the market will do so, and you can bet, it will tell negative stories about you that can strangulate your business.

And in doing your storytelling, corporate executives must be careful to ensure accuracy and avoid distortions. A distorted story can lead to unpalatable consequences that can even reverberate on the international arena. “It is not possible,” said one participant at the training programme. “How can a mistake in storytelling by a company executive be so magnified?” Some other participants concurred. I looked at their faces and clearly saw skepticisms in their non-verbal communications. About 33 pairs of eyes in that training room were fixed on me. They needed to be convinced. I had to do something fast to uphold my integrity as a storytelling consultant with my client.

“What do I do?” I thought. My brain swung into action.  “Tell them a story.” I momentarily veered from discussing the Heineken Alcohol Policy and told them this story of what happened 21 years ago during my early years in financial journalism.  I told the workshop participants: I will answer your question with a story. This is my story.”

“In the mid 1980s; then I was a Finance Correspondent with a tabloid newspaper (name withheld) in Nigeria. That was during the regime of a military president in Nigeria. And it was the period of intense anti-apartheid struggle to free South Africa from the shackles of the apartheid regime in power then. And Nigeria was in the forefront of that struggle.

To add muscle and muster international support for this struggle, Nigeria used every tactics such as boycott of continental and global games. It so happened that the Commonwealth Games was approaching and a Rugby team from Britain was touring apartheid South Africa. Nigeria was not happy about this development and wanted Britain to withdraw that Rugby team; if not Nigeria would boycott the coming Commonwealth Games.

Nigeria wanted to send this message across to Britain. And so the lot fell on the then Foreign Affairs Minister (name withheld) to speak. He granted an interview to the Foreign Affairs Reporter from this newspaper where I was working and his story was simple: “If Britain does not withdraw that Rugby Team from South Africa, Nigeria would boycott the Commonwealth Games. The reporter went back to the newsroom and filed her story as per the interview granted.

Now in editing the story, the editor of the Foreign Affairs desk of the newspaper, apparently edited the story out of context and distorted it. What did he come out with? “Nigeria pulls out of Commonwealth Games.” The Editor of the newspaper jumped at the story, describing it as a scoop that can sell the paper.

The following morning, the newspaper hit the streets with the headline: “Nigeria pulls out of Commonwealth Games, as its lead story. Some of the world’s news media (radio) picked the story and flashed it worldwide.

That night on national network television, the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister acknowledged the boycott giving reasons. That was how the nation boycotted the Games. The government could not tell the world it was the newspaper story that did the job. It was not government’s decision to boycott. It was the distorted story on the front page of the newspaper.

Naturally, the Minister was livid with anger. He complained to the management of the newspaper. Investigation of the interview and writing of the story followed. That was how the reportorial error was detected.

This shows you the power of storytelling even on the negative side.” When I finished narrating this work experience, silence fell on the room. I could see heads nodding in agreement. Participants left the workshop with this story fully recorded in their memory. One of them confirmed that later to me.

Happy storytelling!


Eric Okeke is a storyteller, editor, business writer, motivational speaker and author of the best selling book: I Want a Husband. He is one of Nigeria’s most experienced financial journalists. He has published several articles in local and foreign publications and in websites such as http://www.ezinearticles.com, www.ezinearticles.com and www.writingcareer.com. He is currently running Infomedia Company, a media consulting and information marketing company. Visit his blog at http://sallywantsahusband.blogspot.com

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