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Scheherazade or 1001 Arabian Nights

Scheherazade or The 1001 Arabian Nights is a cornucopia of storytelling - one of the world's finest - as the beautiful young Scheherazade tries to stave off nightly threat of execution by telling a story so enticing that her would-be-executioner husband so desires to hear the end of the story that he postpones the execution till the succeeding night.

Scheherazade is the young daughter of the vizier whose miserable duty it is to behead the virgins that his king marries on a daily basis. She proposes to her father that she be the next victim with the aim of telling the king stories in which he will become so interested that he will be unwilling to execute her out of a wish to hear the end of the story, and in the end persuade the king to stop his horrible practice of killing his brides after the wedding night.

Before she began her quest and married the king, her father, the king's vizier, told her a story in the hope of persuading her to abandon her scheme. The story goes:

A donkey watched from the comfort of the stables an ox toiling on a daily basis in the fields. When the ox asked the donkey how he got away with it, the donkey advised the ox that he should pretend to be ill, and fall down and refuse to do work even if they beat him, and decline to eat any food, and continue this pattern for a few days, at which point the ox would be exempt from further toil. The problem for the donkey was that the ploughman had overheard the conversation and so ordered the donkey to be put to work in place of the ox.

The vizier’s story is perhaps an artistic success but as a story aimed at changing his daughter’s mind and actions, it did not succeed in getting Scheherazade to abandon her plan.

The reasons for the failure of the vizier’s story are covered in The Springboard and The Secret Language of Leadership and include: (a) ox-and-donkey story is too removed from the daughter’s situation to be effective – it involves too big a mental leap; (b) the story ends unhappily – an unlikely story to get the intended springboard effect; and (c) the story doesn’t respond to the daughter’s implicit problem, which is how to break out of a dull, contained, submissive existence as the vizier’s daughter. The vizier's sstory offers the option of a donkey-like existence of comfort and repose, whereas the daughter is thinking of a thrilling but risky existence as the king’s wife. Is it surprising that she chooses the latter?

This fictional failure in getting Scheherazade to change her mind is fortunate for the history of storytelling, since Scheherazade proceeds with her plan to marry the king and dazzle him – and us -- with her storytelling.

To learn how to use storytelling to get people to change their minds, even difficult, skeptical or cynical audiences, read The Secret Language of Leadership.

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