Do fables really convey the power in storytelling and education?


Recently I was discussing the positioning of brands with some friends and saying that some of the biggest and best known Fortune 500 brands still have not told their stories, the best brands in the world are companies that have the ability to continue their stories to craft and sculpture to any situation, circumstance and change, one that is totally transformative.

This provoked some very interesting discussion, then my friend, sipping on his coffee, said: “What about fables?”

Our discussion just became so much more interesting!

A fable is a short, fictional (made-up) story. It usually features animals, although fables can also include mythical creatures, inanimate objects or forces of nature.

One of the most famous fable writers of all time was the legendary Aesop – believed to have been a slave in ancient Greece. Aesop’s Fables contains many classic ones, including “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Lion and the Mouse”.


This is an extract from “The Tortoise and the Hare”:

One day, a hare made fun of the short feet and slow pace of the tortoise. The tortoise just laughed and said, “Even though you are as swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.” The hare thought the tortoise was crazy, so it agreed to the race. The tortoise and the hare asked the fox to choose the course and set the finish line. On the day of the race, the two started together. The tortoise never stopped once. It simply walked with a slow but steady pace to the finish line. The hare, though, believed it would win easily. So it stopped to rest for a while and fell asleep. When the hare finally woke up, it moved as fast as it could. However, it saw the tortoise had already reached the finish line and won the race. Slow but steady wins the race!

What lesson does this fable teach? Do you see how the last line, ‘slow but steady wins the race’, sums up the moral lesson of the fable…. It means that if you keep working, you finally succeed in achieving your goal.

Lucy Cheke, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology, expanded Aesop’s fable into three tasks of varying complexity and compared the performance of Eurasian Jays with local school children.

The task that set the children apart from the Jays involved a mechanism which was counter-intuitive as it was hidden under an opaque surface. Neither the birds nor the children were able to learn how the mechanism worked, but the children were able to learn how to get the reward, whereas the birds were not.

The results of the study illustrate that children learn about cause and effect in the physical world in a different way to birds. While the Jays appear to take account of the mechanism involved in the task, the children are more driven by simple cause-effect relationships.

Lucy Cheke said, ”This makes sense because it is children’s job to learn about new cause-and-effect relationships without being limited by ideas of what is or is not possible. The children were able to learn what to do to get the reward even if the chain-of-events was apparently impossible. Essentially, they were able to ignore the fact that it shouldn’t be happening to concentrate on the fact that it was happening. The birds however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact that it shouldn’t be happening.”

In summary, one of the reasons significant problems are not solved in organisations is that they don’t get confronted. When the stakes are high, the fear factor can be immobilising.

The fable, especially when read by many people within a group, can provide a way for them to first wrestle with issues in the form of a story, which is far less threatening, and then to apply those insights to their own situation in a natural evolution of thought.

Good fables have the incredible power of all good stories to influence behaviour over time. They can help individuals and their groups to become more agile in handling change, for example, in producing better results and, frankly, in having more fun. One of the beauties of a good story is that it can induce action from a broad range of people, in a manner quite different from most professional power’s of leadership.

Tom Peter’s, someone who I have huge admiration for, once said:

“A company brand is a mixture of tangible and intangible attributes, symbolised in a trade mark which, if properly managed, creates influence and generates value.”

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