The power of storytelling in business

Storytelling around the campfire

An odd tongue?

Like many, I was shocked to hear the Pope had resigned. I was equally struck by his decision to do so in Latin, a so-called dead language and certainly one considered by many, including among his followers, to be inaccessible.

One journo ‘got it’ and with it the scoop of a lifetime. For the rest of us, Latin was an interesting choice and it certainly generated a lot of debate in the media.

So now let me generate a bit of debate myself. You see I think business leaders often speak in a strange language I wish was dead.

They speak ‘Strategic’ – an odd tongue made up of long and complicated words which would score well in Scrabble and have you shouting ‘House’ in minutes whilst playing Buzzword Bingo!

Strategic is just as inaccessible a language to their followers as Latin is to the rest of us. Yet for some reason it’s what many leaders choose for explaining what their organisation is trying to achieve on the planet and how their followers, their workforce, can contribute.

Indeed, as one of our clients at AstraZeneca put it: ‘‘Mention ‘strategy’, and people’s eyes usually glaze over.”

Erika Andersen of Forbes clearly agrees in an excellent post Five Top Reasons Strategy Is So Boring You Won’t Even Read This. At no. 3, “Mind-numbing language”; at no. 2, “Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you”; and, top of the chart, “They [the audience] don’t see the connection to real life”.

So, how should leaders communicate their strategies to their workforces and bring them to life without resorting to Strategic?

They could try using perhaps the most effective communication and engagement technique known to man – the power of storytelling (or narrative as some call it).

As a species, we’ve been telling stories for millennia. Human beings love a good story – cave paintings from prehistoric times, legends shared around a campfire, parables retold on a hillside, strategies discussed at the water cooler, business plans debated in the canteen line . . . you can see where I’m going here.

People are going to tell stories day in and day out, even when they’re at work and whether you like it or not. I’ve often said if you want to find out what is really going on in an organisation, stand in the canteen line, keep missing your turn and simply listen to the stories being told. (I used to say learn to smoke, as so much was debated in the dedicated smoking area too – but I’ve since retracted that advice!)

The trick is to get your people telling the right stories and telling them consistently, and in a language that makes sense to them.

Oh and by the way, if you don’t give your people stories to tell, they make them up anyway – usually inaccurately, inconsistently and unhelpfully.

So what makes a good corporate story?

  • Metaphors help if they are relevant, accessible and appropriate. And they work better still when reinforced by images. Pictures paint a thousand words – and metaphors are worth a thousand pictures. At Axiom, we often use the combination to great effect in our Big Picture approach.
  • Your story needs to meet the needs of your audience and address their concerns.
  • You should aim to grab the interest of your audience and inspire action, positive action.
  • Your story needs to create a golden thread for people linking what they do, day in and day out, to what your organisation is trying to achieve.
  • You need to highlight contrast e.g. “We need more of W less of X”, “An increase of Y, a decrease of Z”. Human beings seem to like, understand and remember contrast.
  • Your story needs to be simple and easily retold – short words and sentences in plain English help.
  • Your story should generate dialogue e.g. “So, what it means for me and my team is X . . . – right?”

We used all those ingredients to help Mölnlycke Health Care communicate their strategy, globally and to all levels. The work played no small part in a big jump in understanding of the company’s mission and strategy and overall employee engagement.

So, a choice: Utilise our species’ innate love of stories and our ability to tell and retell them, or communicate in an inaccessible language and hope one bloke gets it and shares the scoop with his colleagues. It’s up to you.

Next time, I’ll blog some thoughts on how to structure stories to take your followers with you on the journey. In the meantime, remember what Franklin D Roosevelt said: “It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and find no-one there.”