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power of storytelling

Shifting mindsets through the power of storytelling

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This article is brought to you by TMI and TACK Malaysia.

If stories can shape our behaviours through childhood, then why not our organisational life, questions George Aveling, CEO of TMI and TACK Malaysia.

We live in a world of stories – and they can shape our behaviours, from childhood through to our organisational life. I remember my mother reading fairy stories to me when I was a little boy. I vividly recall The Boy Who Cried Wolf. He told lies and then suffered the consequences. At that young age, I got the message that people don’t believe liars. Powerful stuff for a five-year-old!

No doubt, you would have your own childhood experiences of being told fables, myths and legends, passed on from your parents and grandparents. And now, many years on, we can use storytelling to change the mindsets of people in organisations.

How do stories shift attitudes and behaviours?

John Kotter, the Harvard change guru said in his book, The Heart of Change, that the way to change people’s behaviour is to appeal to their feelings.

Stories and metaphors touch those feelings. It is when we shift people at an emotional level that we create shifts in mindsets. Powerful stories go to the heart, rather than to the head. A change on a logical or rational level, i.e. in their heads, would not be enough for people to move to act.

The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf certainly appealed to my feelings. And, to lock it in, it instilled in me a powerful mindset: always tell the truth.

If the word ‘storytelling’ is a blocker, we can ask people to ‘share experiences’. They feel comfortable with this – and, in fact, they are telling stories.

Storytelling in training that changes attitudes

Let me give you a simple example of the power of stories. In TMI’s legendary customer service training programme, Putting People First, we don’t explicitly talk about ‘attitudes’. Rather, we tell a simple story, featuring two “grocery baggers” who work at the checkout in a supermarket.

One is a ‘ingle bagger’ whose negative attitude will not get this person very far in life, and the other is a ‘double bagger’ who is a pleasure to work with and to be served by. Participants have ‘aha’ moments that they have been single baggers in their home and/or work lives, and realise how they can become more like double baggers.

The story and the language becomes deeply embedded in them. The impact is that service attitudes and service delivery – are improved.

A storytelling technique: Appreciative inquiry

Another approach to storytelling to create change is to use the principles from appreciative inquiry (AI). This school of thought aims to achieve success by doing ‘more of’ what has been working well for us in the past.

Let’s say you want your people to work better as a team. Using the principles of AI, people in the group recall personal stories of ‘high points’ of when they have been in successful teams. Positive team success behaviours are decoded from these stories. The key then becomes to do more of these behaviours to work as a more successful team.

This approach builds enormous confidence, as the group realises that these behaviours have been demonstrated in the past. They are real behaviours from team members, rather than examples of best practices from outside the organisation.

TMI has used this approach successfully in service, leadership, team building and values alignment workshops. It can be used in small groups and large groups. This is an inspirational and high-impact change process.

“But I can’t tell stories”

The initial reaction of some people is that “I can’t tell stories.” In reality, we live our lives in stories. We have coffee or meals with people, and share with them what has been going on in our lives. If the word ‘storytelling’ is a blocker, we can ask people to ‘share experiences’. They feel comfortable with this – and, in fact, they are telling stories.

Should we focus on skills or mindsets to effect change?

The short answer is that we need to focus on both. Most companies focus on skills, with too little effort on creating commitment by shifting mindsets. Our experience in Malaysia and around the world is that when you focus on both, you unleash enormous energy and results from your people.


George Aveling is the CEO of TMI and TACK Malaysia. An Australian by birth, he eats chilli padi and durian. Contact George at george@tmimalaysia.com, or go to the global websites: www.tmiworld and www.tackinternational.com

TMI, a learning and development company with offices in 50 countries, was established in Denmark in 1975. We have shifted the mindsets of over six million people around the world in customer service, leadership and personal quality. Established in 1948, TACK International is the world’s oldest sales training consultancy. Based in UK, the sister company to TMI, TACK provides practical sales, leadership and personal development training in 50 countries. TACK’s philosophy is ‘learn it – use it’.


This article was published in Human Resources’ special edition – Training & Development Guide 2018, Malaysia. Read the full magazine here.

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