"In June of last year, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the website of the Center for Disease Control and got an answer to a question about the treatment of malaria. Remember this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world and it was a tiny place 600 kms away from the capital city. But the most striking thing about this picture is, at least for us; that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our knowhow of all kinds of poverty related issues, that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it. Imagine if it were – think what an organization we could become."
Stephen Denning, author of 'The Leader’s Guide to Story Telling: Mastering the art and discipline of Business Narrative' mentions that how this simple story narrated by him convinced his colleagues at the World Bank the need for adopting robust Knowledge Management practices; something he had been struggling with despite his carefully thought out presentations supported with a lot of data on this topic.
Our journey from childhood to adulthood is replete with stories that have enthralled us, taught us, and created a huge emotional impact on us. How many of us remember listening to descriptive stories of mighty heroes and long forgotten kings recounted by a beloved parent or grandparent. Years might have passed by, yet the powerful visuals are still with us. Yet, storytelling as an effective means of influencing, in the corporate world, often meets with sceptical silence.
The need for story telling in the corporate world
We are living in a VUCA world where aligning your teams rapidly with changing organizational priorities, getting a buy-in for a difficult call of action, and establishing your credibility in a short time span across culturally diverse stakeholders, is a reality most business leaders face on an ongoing basis. In this context, leadership is essentially a task of influencing – of winning people’s minds and hearts. Mastering the subtle art of influencing is a crucial skill that new leaders need to learn. A well-crafted story which is delivered effectively can be a very powerful tool for meeting any of the above objectives. It makes something easier to understand and easier to remember. A story doesn’t have to be five minutes or ten minutes long. A short well-scripted narrative can be covered in less than two minutes, yet leave an indelible impression in the listener’s mind.
Impact of stories
It is often said that business thinking is driven by data and hard analytics. However while data meets the need of feeding the neo cortex part of the brain, it does not engage us emotionally. A good story hooks us to the limbic part of the brain which arouses emotions. Stories are simple, contagious, easy to remember, and help the listener participate in the story, thereby making the message hard to forget. Most successful organizations such as Microsoft, Motorola, World Bank, Disney, and South West Airlines intentionally use storytelling as a key leadership tool.
A story expresses how and why a situation or life changes for the protagonist. It begins with a state of balance – a situation where life is relatively in order. The protagonist then faces an event that throws life out of balance. The story goes on to describe the challenges faced by the protagonist. A good story should describe these opposing forces vividly to make it real to the audience. The story would describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion, but not necessarily in the exact way that the audience expects.
A good story should therefore have the following key elements:
- Starting with Why: Before starting a story it is important to remember who the audience is and what the purpose is for the story. Focussing on the key message for the audience will help you craft an appropriate story. Stories can be used for various objectives such as: taking action, sharing your vision, building your credibility, transmitting organizational values, and getting people or teams work together.
- A Protagonist: In the story mentioned by Stephen Denning, he used the health worker as the protagonist. The protagonist can also be an organization. The protagonist can also be you if you are using your story to build rapport and credibility with your stakeholders. For example Jack Welch mentions in his memoir how he received a severe tongue lashing from his mother when he hurled a hockey stick after losing a game. His mother chased him into the locker room where he was changing with the rest of the team. She grabbed him by his shoulder and said, ‘You punk, if you don’t know how to lose, you will never know how to win.’
- A conflicting incident: This is the tipping point where the situation gets out of balance. This creates the tension in the audience’s mind – for example in Jack’s story it was losing the match, in Denning’story it was the absence of the World Bank in enabling information to the poorest people in the world.
- Challenges faced by the protagonist: Strong opposing forces that make the outcome of the story uncertain will keep your audience engaged – what will happen next. Some situations call for layering challenges in the form of events in the story as it further builds up audience tension.
- Action taken: Between the conflict and the final exposition, the action, i.e., the process, the idea or wisdom which allows the protagonist to overcome the conflict. This creates a sense of release for the audience and answers ‘what happened’.
- Lesson learnt: Finally the message from the story. It can be explicit as mentioned in Denning’s story and sometimes the message could be implied, as in Jack Welch’s story where the subtext tells how the incident shaped his character.
Delivering the story
A well-crafted story can fall flat if not delivered properly. Using a conversational tone, such as how one speaks to another person, creates a sense of intimacy and more impact. ‘Show’ the story to your audience instead of ‘telling’ it. Use words to build pictures in their head. Your audience needs to see the characters come to life. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk, titled ‘Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce’, he describes a character named Howard by saying ‘Howard is about this high, and he is round, and he’s in his 60s. He has big, huge glasses and thinning hair, and he has a kind of wonderful exuberance’. This brings Howard to life for the audience.
Our landscapes abound with business, human interest and personal stories. Leaders who can use these as a springboard to create and deliver customized stories for different situations will create powerful messages for their audience and no doubt, expand their influencing skills.