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Storytelling and the Art of Change

Storytelling is a powerful tool when you want to drive organizational change, sell an idea, or just make a point.

There's nothing new about storytelling. As a species, it's in our DNA. Long before we had books and newspapers, telephones and telegraphs, the Internet and Kindles, our ancestor's sat around the fire and told stories. More than storytellers, we're story consumers. Even people who think they're no good at telling stories generally love to hear them. We just respond better to information when it's delivered with a memorable anecdote or example (i.e., story).

The Leader's Guide to Storytelling

I'm reading The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, by Stephen Denning. It describes how to use storytelling to move people to action, build trust (in you as a leader or in your company or brand), convey your values and vision, and drive change in your organization – outcomes that all managers need to deliver today. While “analysis might excite the mind, it hardly offers a route to the heart," Denning writes. “And that's where you must go if you are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm. At a time when corporate survival often requires transformational change, leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar and often unwelcome ways."

Stories are not a natural part of the business dialogue in most companies. There's an executive bias toward data-based analysis and objectivity to the exclusion of “softer" means of persuasion. How often have you heard someone apologize for a point of evidence being “just anecdotal"? But the two are not mutually exclusive. “Although good business cases are developed through the use of numbers, they are typically approved on the basis of a story," Denning writes.

Then there's the issue of language itself. People who are perfectly fluent in human terms outside the office start babbling away in corporate mumbo-jumbo as soon as they cross the company lobby. Put them in a conference room or onto a stage and it gets worse. It doesn't have to be that way.

One of the things I like right away about Denning's book is his message that anyone can learn to tell a good story. And that's a good thing. In “The Irrational Side of Change Management," published in the McKinsey Quarterly and excerpted on Forbes.com, Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller point out that even managers who buy in to the power of stories fail to achieve the change they want by telling the wrong stories. They don't realize that what motivates them as company leaders and stewards won't likely motivate the mass of people they're trying to influence. Leaders tend to focus on the impact on the company, but this is only one of five areas that matter to employees. The others are impact on society (is there a “green" angle to your data center consolidation?), the customer, the team they're a part of, and their own interests (personal development, compensation, etc.).

A second excellent point Aiken and Keller make is that it's much more powerful to let people “write their own story." In other words, before you tell your story, ask a lot of questions, really listen to the answers, and incorporate what you hear into your change program. This is about buy-in. “When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome (almost by a factor of five to one). Conventional approaches to change management underestimate this impact. The rational thinker sees it as a waste of time to let others discover for themselves what he or she already knows—why not just tell them and be done with it? Unfortunately this approach steals from others the energy needed to drive change that comes through a sense of ownership of the answer."

Stories are useful in all parts of the change process, starting with selling the idea to the CEO, board of directors or investors. There are different types of stories for different situations: comparative examples with positive outcomes; parables that convey a set of values; narratives with an identifiable protagonist; and problem/resolution stories.

You don't have to have been born with the gift of gab to be an effective storyteller. Managers can increase their effectiveness by learning which stories to tell and how to tell them. The right story well told will engage your audience in ways all the data in the world on its own never will.

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