“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G.K. Chesterton
There is a super smart executive that I work with in the City. As part of her career journey through the organisation, she was in charge of the 500-man IT department for a while. Her tenure as CIO overlapped with the organisation's increased appetite to acquire new companies and to streamline the existing business. This strategy required a significant overhaul of the incumbent systems and a level investment in IT that was unprecedented.
The CIO and her leadership team worked hard to develop a case to support the required change program but when it came to presenting to the board, the plan was rejected wholesale.
With the wisdom of hindsight, the CIO now realizes that her team failed to tell a compelling story to support the investment. Like so many IT-lead change programs, they relied solely on data to make the case for change. Spreadsheets and presentation decks were not going to influence the hearts and minds of the business as the new role of IT.
This CIO is not alone in her troubled communication with the business.
Facts and data are hard to remember. You cannot get people on facts alone – it is emotion that brings people along with the message. As leaders, we need to tap into this emotion. One of the ways of doing this is through story because at the heart of every story is emotion.
Through using storytelling, we can help people understand what we are saying, help them remember what we said, and most powerfully, enable them to retell our story.
Inspite of what we’d like to think, humans are not plain, rational beings. We seek experiences that spark our imaginations and stories are the pathway in. We make sense of the world through narratives.
And there is some evidence to support this view. Evolutionists tell us that we learnt to survive in the world by telling stories. Psychologists tell us we are hard wired to tell stories. Sociologists tell us that stories help bring us together.
Change programs are an area in our corporate world that often lack a compelling narrative. Change is complex, lengthy and often perceived to bring pain and suffering to the staff and customers. Stories can illustrate that change isn’t always bad, and explain why this change is important to all involved.
The transformation programs often rely heavily on facts to get through the governance process. As in the opening example shows, the data wont persuade folk to come along on the journey of change. Stories will.
How do we tell stories in the workplace? Aristotle’s’ model of influence requires us to use equal measures of logic, ethos and pathos. Most corporate narratives are skewed to logic alone. The IT department is particularly adept at relying solely on logic. Stories that will engage the listeners need more emotional connection and credibility of the storyteller.
Some of the most successful companies in the world use storytelling very intentionally as a leadership tool. Organisations like Microsoft, Motorola, Berkshire Hathaway, Procter & Gamble, and NASA are among them. Some have a high level corporate storyteller who’s job it is to capture and share their most important stories. At Nike, all the senior executives are designated corporate storytellers. Shell sends its IT staff on storytelling training in order to be able to effectively communicate change to the business.
Other companies teach storytelling skills to their executives (because they certainly aren’t learning it in business school). Kimberly-Clark, for example, provides two-day seminars to teach its 13-step program for crafting stories and giving presentations with them.
It’s widely accepted that communication is an important leadership skill. More specifically, it’s storytelling that we need from our leaders. We need stories about dragons so we learn that dragons can be killed.
What do you need to communicate to your team? What story will you tell to bring your team along with you on the journey?