Story.

“Never start a dance without the story in mind first.” – Rudolph Nureyev

Storytelling as a communication plan.

Where I work, our new CEO has been in place for a year. One of the changes he insisted on was to not have the traditional communications channels used to launch our new enterprise values. What happened instead was our senior leaders all got training on how to tell stories. The idea: have the leaders convey the personal meaning they saw in the values; inviting and influencing – but not dictating – the personal meaning people in their teams would find.

Since they rolled out a couple of months ago, I’ve been asking any group that I‘ve facilitated what the 5 new enterprise values are. Not everyone knows them off by heart yet, but every group – within a few seconds – has named all 5. The first that comes up every time is ‘be bold’. This is the one that is the most radical departure from the previous values iteration. It is the one that captures the imagination in a company that is traditionally conservative and risk-aware. I ask how they remember it. “Our boss told us a story of when he/she/we were bold, and what it achieved” is the frequent reply. My follow up question: so what does it mean to you? “It’s good to know we’ve done it before.” “It makes it real.” “My boss seemed excited when he/she talked about it.” The best: “We’ve been encouraged to create our own stories.” The leaders who have embraced the story-telling concept, and followed the methods they’ve received training in, have clearly created traction.

Why our fear of storytelling?

There is no shortage of science and anecdotal evidence showing that tapping into narrative thinking is a proven way to help people remember. Stories do that. We loved having stories told to us as children; they calmed us in readiness to sleep or took our imaginations to worlds beyond our comprehension. We have no unfamiliarity with the format, nor any innate rebellion against it. Our unconscious competence at telling stories – in everyday conversation – is there. But there is a juxtaposition: As a facilitator and facilitation coach, I see the fear many have of telling an intentional, prepared story in a business setting. So why the dread? And what can you do about it?

Stories push us to get more personal, to share more of ourselves. In doing so is a risk of deconstructing the carefully built corporate veneer that is our ‘personal brand’. Well, being yourself is becoming the new desirable brand; but this does mean becoming more vulnerable. So is there a way around that? Could you tell someone else’s story, for instance, and leverage off their vulnerability? You can, but your eyes won’t light up as much. Your gestures won’t be as effusive. Your voice won’t have the same intonation. It will struggle to be as genuine. So, if you tell someone else’s story, make sure you tell the story of your reaction to their story and what you did as a result. Then it will be your story.

There is performance pressure for stories to be relevant in a business context, or specifically to a business outcome. Ever been asked at the start of a workshop to think of something about yourself that no-one knows? Yes, that feeling! Well, take the pressure off. You can take a simple story – an everyday one – and draw meaning from that. By doing so, you bring perspective. For example, our CEO a few months ago told my team of a time when he was teaching his son to drive, and his son pointed out that he didn’t put his indicators on all the time, so why should he. The point was that leaders can’t be ‘do as I say, not as I do’. That story, because of its simplicity, didn’t require re-explaining, and was therefore successful.

It is hard to know how engaged the audience are. A technique to manage that is to build the story with the audience as you go by asking “so what would you do here?” at critical junctures (just like the children’s ‘choose your own adventure’ book series). This is great for stories of the business environment that have some depth to them. This technique is highly engaging and helps the audience make meaning through it, which helps you build rapport quickly. Alternately, you can tell your story and then ask of individuals in the audience “so what did my story mean to you?”, thank them and repeat that with another 3 or 4 people. This approach will give you lots to work with and to reference back to in the rest of your talk.

It is tough to know how many stories to tell and when. Some people will only remember your stories and nothing else you said. Maybe start with the longer story that you build with the audience, to earn that rapport.   Then, if you have three outcomes you identify as being the most critical that your audience remember and ascribe meaning to, allocate each one a simple story. Remember, you can always send written material to the audience before and after for them to absorb facts and data in their own time.

You may only have facts and data to work with, and not know the right context to set a story within. Here is a good technique that will allow you to construct a story from scratch, incorporating facts and data.

  1. Describe the current state. List 3 unarguable facts about the subject as it stands today.
  2. Describe the forces of change. List 3 factors that are pressuring the current state to be different.
  3. Describe the change. One sentence is all you need.
  4. Describe potentially negative reactions to the change. List 2 possible opinions.
  5. Describe potentially positive reactions to the change. List 2 possible opinions.
  6. Describe the future state. List 3 unarguable facts about how the subject will be in the future.

This is builds a story because you are taking the listener from one place to another. Rehearsing this, and getting feedback, will enable you to tell the story in a cohesive way. The structure gives comfort during the preparation because of the focus and order it brings. The structure works because it builds in the ‘why’ – the context – up front. There is also an ability to build data into the ‘unarguable facts’ sections. The most important section is where you address potential opinions; you can use artfully vague language here to good effect. For instance, saying “some of you may be feeling…” will recognise those who are feeling a certain way, whilst not alienating those who don’t feel that way.

The best way to tell a story, if you can physically do it, is in person. Ideally, sit everyone in a ‘campfire’ circle and be seated yourself, so you maintain the same eye-level. This not only brings focus to you, it allows you to ask someone else to tell their story. A vulnerability exchange: now that’s something worth trying.

This blog post is to help celebrate the first ‘Working Out Loud’ week of 2015. It has been simultaneously published as well on the internal Yammer social media platform of National Australia Bank. You can find out more about working out loud by searching Twitter for #WOL, #wolweek2015, #showyourwork or #workingoutloud.

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