The Power of Parabolic Communication

By Jim Whitt

A friend of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale once observed that all Dr. Peale did when he gave a speech was to tell a story and make a point, then tell another story and make another point. He asked Dr. Peale where he learned that form of communication in his presentations. Dr. Peale’s answer was simple, “Jesus.”

Jesus taught using parables and like Dr. Peale I’ve discovered the power of parabolic communication. A parable can be defined as “a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.”

What makes the parable or allegory so powerful is how it engages the listener or reader. Jesus told stories about things people easily related to like farming and fishing. I can imagine people listening to Jesus share a story about a farmer sowing seeds on different kinds of soil while nodding their heads and thinking, “Been there, done that.” And that’s the key. If people can see themselves in the story, they get the story. What makes a good novel good is when you get so involved in the story that you feel like you are there.

Parabolic communication is a positive form of provocation. Instead of agreement or disagreement it facilitates a more intellectual response – I’ll have to think about that. The parable provokes discussion. Imagine the conversation a few friends might have after hearing Jesus share the parable of the talents.

John: What in the world was he talking about?

Peter:  Well, money of course. Invest wisely and earn a good return.

Mary:  You know, I think maybe he was talking about our talents – like you have unique talents and I have unique talents. And God gave us those talents to use and if we don’t use them we lose them.

Martha: So, we have talent on loan from God?

The process of analyzing and discussing the story is a more effective learning process than the traditional classroom model of lecture, read the textbook and memorize.

Authors like Og Mandino, Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson have used the allegory to write best-selling “business” books. I used the allegorical formula to write Riding for the Brand: The Power of Purposeful Leadership. I wrote it as a western that takes place 30 years into the future. Why write a book on leadership as a futuristic western? Westerns and science fiction occupy a powerful place in our imaginations. I have a much better chance of getting the message across by imbedding the principles of purposeful leadership in a story which has familiar points of reference as opposed to writing a “how to” book.

I’ve also learned to incorporate a form of allegory into my organizational development process. The process is pretty involved, so I’ll give you a condensed version. Instead of the traditional strategic planning method, I have clients write a 30 year futuristic history of their organization. Creating a story of the organization’s future and involving the employees in writing it is much more powerful than just drafting goals and issuing directives. Remember, if people can see themselves in the story they get the story. And if we get the story we can start living the story.

Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind.

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