Storytelling lessons from company front lines

December 3, 2010: 12:28 PM ET

Storytelling in business can just as easily save the day as it can make a sticky situation even stickier. Here are a few lessons learned from people who have turned to stories in their work.

By Vickie Elmer, contributor

Context counts

Ed Fuller tells of a dinner he had with eight Japanese bankers in the 1990s.

"I am the only Gaijin at the table, meaning white devil," he said with a small laugh. "About half of them are very comfortable in English and many seem quite introverted. Whenever I get stuck for a topic…. I always fall back on history," he said.

So he starts a discussion of the two capitals of Japan, acknowledging that he cannot recall the second one. The Japanese bankers cannot come up with it either...

But the young woman serving the men pipes up, "It's Nagaoka." The bankers looked surprised to hear from her -- a server and a woman.

"You know, Japanese men don't think Japanese women know these things. Then I made the faux pas of the century. I said 'I guess things are changing in Japan.' They said: 'Not for the best,'" Fuller recalled.

The dinner continued and Fuller noticed the young woman no longer was bringing out dishes. He realized she'd been punished for being so outspoken. So he sought her out and found her guarding the shoes, the lowliest job in the restaurant. Fuller spoke to her for a few minutes, feeling guilty. He learns she's a second year law student -- and realizes Japan really is evolving. More

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