Weaving the ‘why’ into the South African story

TWO thirty-somethings are sipping beer on plastic stools outside a chicken shop in Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg. “This is the best chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life. “The best.” “It’s bananas Fernando. What is this stuff. . . peri-peri sauce?”  

“Never heard of it, but it’s delicious. Shall we take it global?” “Why not? Pakistan or Bangladesh?” An amphitheatre of MBA students in Singapore sit riveted in their chairs listening to this story. It’s one we know well here in South Africa. The birth of Nando’s.

Our ability to tell stories, from statesmen to trainee receptionists to the world’s top businesspeople, is a fundamental leadership skill. It wins debates, encourages buy-in, simplifies messages, and enhances context and connectivity.

It’s partly what inspired me to write Why? a collection of short poems which explore questions children ask for which there are not necessarily answers.

If I said it was written with a clear purpose in mind it would be blurred with hindsight. But as I explored questions from “Why do people sleep?” to “Why do we eat cows and sheep but not horses and dogs?”

I realised that not only is adult storytelling a neglected skill but so too is our ability to deal with ambiguity in an increasingly uncertain and inter-related world.

Fostering relationships across culture, gender, nationality, and language relies on empathy, context, and non-judgmental compassion. In most cases there is no single truth.

As I began to realise how important these skills are, I reflected on our own schooling system and wondered if we were giving the development of these attributes the attention they deserve. In South Africa we are encouraged to choose a professional stream directly after school. This is partly due to a scarcity of skills.

In comparison, a French education is rich with culture, arts, literature and philosophy. In the US, there is a four-year college system prior to medical or law school and in England there is the Oxbridge model of non-vocational studies (reading English, literature and history) before specialising.

South Africans are technically adept, but our competitors know how to think, reason, negotiate and influence others to listen to their ideas. They can weave the story an audience wants to hear.

I believe we need to foster storytelling and iterative inquiry in our youth. We can place them in situations which help them to appreciate ambiguity.

We can show them there is not always a right answer. We can show them the importance of considering and accepting other people’s perspectives.

We can encourage them to tell stories, think creatively and use humour. We can guide them to challenge the status quo, push boundaries and dare to dream.

We allocate billions of rands to skills-based learning but we lament the lack of ingenuity or initiative in our workforce. Yet how much have we invested in teaching people how to think?

Computers may already have successfully replicated our ability to analyse and compute, but it is some time before they replace our emotional and intuitive capability. If that is the case, these will become increasingly important skills in the computer age of 2020.

I seem to have stumbled upon this field almost like a shepherd in the mist, and frankly I accept no guru status beyond your own. In fact, I am increasingly humbled and impressed by the mountains of good work being done in this area. I hope it receives the attention it deserves. As individuals, families, communities and businesses, perhaps we can start by promoting storytelling and inquiry as key skills, equally applicable in boardrooms and kindergartens.

Is there a destination that changed the course of your life, and what is the story behind that?

Ryan works for Spinnaker Growth Partners, an investment and advisory firm based in Johannesburg. His books are available from David Krut on Jan Smuts and Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

  • We have three copies of Why? to give away. SMS the keyword WHY followed by your name, contact details and the answer to the question: Where did the MBA students hear about Nando’s? to 32545 and you could win one. SMSs cost R1. Closing date February 28.
Being told stories and being read to helps children develop the rich storehouse of language, grammar and vocabulary they need to bring to texts when learning to read and write. Get your FREE Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment supplement tomorrow in The Herald or visit www.nalibali.org and mobisite, www.nalibali.mobi for more storytelling tips and children’s stories.