In 1983, the Nobel Prize for Literature was judged to be a closely-matched contest between two British writers: Anthony Burgess and William Golding. The prize went to the latter, which the former didn’t always take with great grace: he judged Golding not so much as a novelist but as a writer of ‘fables’. (If there’s an immediately relevant fable about eating too many sour grapes affecting your outlook on life, I’ve not yet found it – but your suggestions would be welcome.) There’s probably a debate to be had about the purpose or point of literature, although it’s one most people would gladly leave to the Nobel judges. But one of the interesting points about fables is that they really do have one …

The word fable has come to us from the Latin, and just means a little story, but one that is intended to impart a moral lesson. (Myths and parables fall into the same category, and the technical differences need not worry us for the point we’re making here.) But the idea of the fable – a short, memorable tale with an equally memorable learning point – didn’t just come from the Romans. Cultures around the world used fables both as part of the oral, storytelling tradition and as a way of passing on valuable lessons. There are fables in The Bible, for example. The Arabian Nights stories are fables, and we get the idea of The Tortoise and The Hare from one of history’s most famous fabulists, Aesop.

In the modern age, we tend to think of fables as children’s stories – not unfairly, as writing and delivering them were part of the education of Ancient Greek and Roman children. But the power of the fable to memorably get across an important point isn’t something that needs to be restricted to a young audience: George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a fable too. If you know the expression “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, it’s because the fable served its purpose: you have remembered the point.

Business being an arena of time pressures, an endless array of things to learn and a need to communicate clearly and concisely, it’s not surprising that the business fable has started to become a recognisable genre of business book. If you’ve read Kotter’s Our Iceberg is Melting or many of Patrick Lencioni’s books (we recently reviewed his The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and a review of Getting Naked is coming shortly), you’ve read a business fable. Some have achieved the level of fame that invites parody: Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese triggered both huge sales and a slew of send-ups, not all of them affectionate. Some – Phil Jesson’s Piranhas in the Bidet, for example – are less well known, but deserve a wider readership (read Anton Franckeiss’ review).

Business fables combine our human love of narrative – something we seek in our own lives (as Richard Sennett has pointed out) and enjoy in hearing from others – with the worklife equivalent of stories we heard as children sitting on a grandparent’s knee. Fables taught something to open learning too: that you make learning accessible and meaningful by linking it to everyday life: the story is the sugar-coating on the educational pill. A point not lost on business leaders, to cite a quote from an article at USA Today:

Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz says he reads only Bible parables but sees how a story would possess power. Entire brands such as Nike are built more on myth than on their product, and Timberland finds more success selling “the notion of sitting around the campfire at the end of the day” than hiking boots, he says.”

Just one word of warning, however. Fables should be relatively simple, but never patronising. Like any kind of communication, individual audience members will respond differently. (One of the hallmarks of fables is that they enable the reader or listener to arrive at a conclusion, rather than having one broadcast at them.) As USA Today pointed out, the CEO who loves a fable so much he orders a copy for everyone in the company may not have the impact that he or she imagines, or hopes for,

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams says parables rank among the top 10 reader complaints in his e-mail. Workers feel “terribly insulted,” he says.”

Any kind of communication needs to be informed by its audience: what do they want and need to hear (nb: these are almost certainly two very different things!), what will hold their interest, and what will lose it. Bear those things in mind while you formulate your story, and you should recognise the difference between a page-turner and a stomach-turner.

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