Margaret Parkin Q&A
I’ve followed the activities of Margaret Parkin, especially her masterclass workshops in business storytelling, for quite a while. I’ve been hoping for a long time that she would participate in the Q&A series, and I’m delighted that she has.
Bio: UK-based Margaret Parkin is the author of four best-selling books on storytelling in organisations — Tales for Trainers, More Tales for Trainers (her newest), Tales for Coaching, and Tales for Change. The books have been translated into five different languages across the world. She also consults and coaches, offers training and development, and presents keynotes; see the Web site for her company, Success Stories. Margaret offers public masterclass workshops in business storytelling designed for HR managers, training managers, organizational-development managers, and coaches.
A good way to see what Margaret does is though this short video:
Q&A with Margaret Parkin:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: I have been involved in organisational learning and development for a long time now. Even from the early days, my training style was always anecdotal; I have always, (initially unconsciously I think) used stories and metaphors to get a message or concept across. But then I found that I was telling and more stories and my participants were coming to expect them and look forward to them! One of the turning points for me I think was when I had been asked to address a rather large and boisterous group of MBA students at a university in Scotland, who had completed their weekend of practical assignments, completed their dissertations, and now just wanted to go home — and certainly didn’t want to listen to my talk on powerful communication skills. It was only towards the end of the hour long session (and possibly out of desperation), that I decided to tell them a story… and then something rather strange happened. One by one, the animated conversations on each of the dozen or so tables simply seemed to peter out and die, and I found, to my surprise, that my storytelling was greeted by complete and rapt attention. The change in atmosphere was so pronounced that, at the end of the session, rather than leaping out of their chairs like rockets as I thought they would have done, no-one moved. I actually had to tell them that they could go home! From that day, I began to realize that there was something special about storytelling. I discovered that stories do something that other forms of communication fail to do — they completely engage an audience — and they can actually change behaviour.
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: I am always keen to point out to potential clients that I am a “business storyteller,” which by my definition, is where one helps individuals, teams and organisations to grow, develop and achieve success, using narrative and metaphor as a means to that end. This is a different role to that of a dramatic “performance storyteller,” who works more with children as a form of entertainment. I’m not saying one is better than the other at all, only that the functions and delivery are different. There is a huge difference between “child-like” and “child-ish” and the latter, in a business environment can be seen to be patronising. Care is needed when using storytelling in a business setting!
Q: Do you find that people in business resist the concept of storytelling? I’m particularly wondering about those who seek out your What’s Your Story? 1-on-1 coaching. Do clients tend to seek out this coaching because they are specifically seeking story-based coaching? Do your individual clients come to you of their own volition, or do supervisors suggest they get your coaching?
A: The culture of some organisations just wouldn’t support the notion of storytelling — particularly, as I mentioned before, if it is seen as child-ish. And so in those cases, I might not even mention the word, or I might refer to it as “business narrative” which is deemed more acceptable!
I don’t think the majority of people (certainly in the UK) would even be familiar with the concept of “story-based” training or coaching. They approach me (or their managers approach me) because they have a particular problem or issue that they need help with and they rely on me to choose the most appropriate method. And this is really where story comes into its own — it is a powerful, yet non-invasive way of encouraging people to “re-frame” and make positive changes. Stories don’t tell you what to do; they suggest that you might see things in a different way — and let you decide the rest!
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: I ran a storytelling session with trainers from a large retail organisation in the UK. The participants paired up and used the circus metaphor as a coaching tool for change. One participant recalls the event below:
Alison still remembers “the circus” as one of the most powerful training experiences she has participated in. She recalls “Margaret asked everyone to imagine their current job like an act in a circus, and also, if they wanted to make changes, who they would like to be. My partner wanted to be the glamorous woman with sequins and feathers riding on the horses. But she described her current position as ‘the circus flea in a box.’ The impact of that image was immense. I could feel the sense of worthlessness she was expressing. I said to her, ‘What needs to happen for you to get out of the box?’ She suddenly grabbed hold of my hand and said, ‘I know exactly what I need to do.’”
Alison stayed in touch with her partner and saw her change her role within the company, eventually taking on much greater responsibilities. She obviously found her way out of the box!
I have since developed the idea of the circus metaphor into a personality tool, “Which Circus Act Are You?” which is available free on my website.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: When using storytelling in organisations, always put yourself in the listeners’ shoes and be clear on what the purpose is for using a particular story. For example, you might be wanting to help them deal with conflict or offer a different perspective on a difficult situation, handle change more positively or help to increase self esteem. Don’t be seduced into the ‘one story fits all’ approach that I see some people using; in other words don’t just tell a story because you like telling it! Always know your audience or group and think of what story, language, lesson etc. would be most appropriate for them to hear.