11 February 2013

The Power of a Good Story

It was a hot Monday afternoon in June 2007. Gazing up at me expectantly was a sea of ebony-black faces – over one thousand graduating students of Covenant University, located on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria.

I’d been invited there in my role as 2006-2007 World President of the International Federation for Professional Speakers. With me was my friend Lenora Billings-Harris, a diversity specialist and the first Black American President of the National Speakers Association US, the largest of our ten member nations.

I’d pondered long and hard about how to start my speech. What meaningful connection could I, a middle-aged white woman from privileged New Zealand, share with these knowledge-hungry young people. After all, our lives were incredibly different. Very little of their daily experience was my daily experience.

In our privileged lives we live with plenty. We live with the backstop of social security. We live with ease, reliable infrastructure, and a large degree of comfort. These beautiful young people and their families, however, live with daily chaos, poverty and economic turmoil.

In Lagos (and probably most places in Nigeria) power flicks on and off many times a day. Water doesn’t always run. Telephone land-lines are sparse. Internet connections drop in and out.

Cash is king. To purchase almost anything – airplane tickets, hotel rooms, food, petrol – don’t expect to use a credit card. Instead, bring a wheelbarrow of almost useless Naira! And if there’s a General Strike, as there was the last two days of our week-long visit, don’t expect banks to operate, petrol will only be available at exorbitant prices on the black market, and within two days domestic planes will cease to fly.

Most Lagos main roads (supposedly three-lane) are dodgem tracks for chicken-playing drivers so skilful they wouldn’t be shamed on a Grand Prix track. Mind you, there’s a business advantage in their roading chaos. The pot-holed crazy strips of partial tarmac create a vibrant marketplace for the seething mass of humanity. Street vendors, balancing goods on their heads or carried in their arms, stroll through and around the almost stationery traffic. You’d never be hungry, thirsty or out of communication in their all-day and half-the-night traffic jams. As well as insistent beggars, you’ll have bread, fruit, eggs, drinks, mobile phone cards and all manner of other goods being offered at your windows as you wait with varying degrees of patience (or impatience) for traffic to move. Others sell their wares in tiny roadside shacks, centimetres away from the black billowing exhaust fumes of vehicles so dilapidated a junk yard in New Zealand would turn them away.

So what could I say that would make a difference? As a professional speaker I’ve learnt well the power of a great story. Done skilfully it slides past the conscious mind and questioning brain into the hearts of the listeners. Done skilfully it packs a message a thousand times more powerful than any PowerPoint slide loaded with erudite information.

These future leaders of their country were about to hit the job market. They’d had a great education at Covenant. They were hungry to learn more. Anything to do with my own topic of time management would probably be useful. But I wanted a story that would link at a more profound level, a story that would stay in their hearts as they move into positions of responsibility.

And then inspiration struck. One of the things Lenora and I had quickly noticed was the (to us) unnatural subservience accorded their leaders. It wasn’t hard to see how such societies are easy targets for corrupt leaders who seek power in order to suck the system dry. Such ‘leadership’ is the curse of many resource-rich but starving African nations.

I began to speak.

‘It was 1995 and Auckland was preparing for CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). My daughter Catherine was a university student just like you. To fund her studies she also worked in the banquets team of a top Auckland hotel, the location of most of the really significant CHOGM events.

‘She came home one night, bursting to tell about that day’s experience.

“We had a huge function today. Everyone who’s anyone in the Commonwealth was there – all manner of Very Important People. There was lots of ‘please notice me – I’m important in my country’ behaviour. These people had no idea how obvious they were. The irony was, those same people, so hungry for attention, treated the hotel staff as though we were invisible. They snapped orders; they were rude; they were unpleasant to serve.

“However, two people stepped aside from the crowds of people jockeying to make an impression. These two people came over to the staff as we were lined up, waiting to begin serving the meal. They asked our names, what we were studying [almost all the staff are students], and what future careers we have planned. Not only did they ask questions, but they also listened and talked with us as equals.

“Who were these two people? The Queen of England – and – Nelson Mandela”.’

Reflect back in life – what stories have made an impact in your life? And what stories can you share with your students? What impact can you make on their lives?





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