The Power of Story


By Anne Orban

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We are in a Presidential election cycle where the power of story to transform an electorate has never been more evident. Whether candidates catch on or not, it’s because of some vision of a future in which we can imagine being better off than we are now.  The more pain we feel now, the more we have to gain from the future story.

The challenge for all types of organizations is that it would be far better to start the transformation process before the pain of failure to change becomes real.  No matter what level of management or leadership you have in your professional (and for that matter in your personal) life, storytelling is a fundamental skill that you need to inspire, persuade, motivate and coach for actions that are needed to achieve goals.

By storytelling, I mean using the power of story to get listeners to imagine a new future and to spark action.  What makes a story spark action?  Stephen Denning in his book about experience with culture change at the World Bank [The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Actions In Knowledge-Era Organizations, (Butterworth Heinemann, 2000)] identifies what makes for an effective story and eventual transformational success.  Steve Denning says that a narrative to spark change has 4 characteristics:

  1. It is usually based on an actual experience that is hard to argue against. That experience is not necessarily in your organization but somewhere, where a change idea has been successfully implemented. That story exists somewhere; you just have to find it, because as William Gibson the science fiction writer said, “The future is already here.  It’s just very unevenly distributed.”
  2. Tell the story in as minimalist a way as possible. Not too much detail that listeners cannot use their own imaginations and extrapolate from their own situation and experiences.  Stand-up comedians are masters at that.  The first words out of their mouths set context – like ‘dating’, or ‘boyfriends’ or ‘politicians’.  By that simple device, the audience is hooked into their own contextualization of what the comedian unfolds in short, punchy lines with a quick pay-off.
  3. Always choose a successful outcome Inspiring action is not about cautionary tales designed to manage behavior.  The success story inspires us by illustrating that problems can be overcome.
  4. Tell the story with conviction and honestly from the heart. That stimulates listeners to believe in the different future and to reach that level of engagement that prompts us to imagine roles for ourselves in the context of the change idea presented by the story.

In new product development, Steven Fahrenholtz has talked about his experience with the innovative work of General Mills’ iSquad.  Their work is to find the compelling empathic story from consumer insights that can propel a new product innovation from idea to commercial success.  It’s really all about empowering new product developers at every level of responsibility for problem-solving with belief that ‘we can’ and that ‘we must’ and reminding us of ‘why!’

Embarking on culture change or organizational transformation or finding the right idea for a new product or service is not about telling one story of future success one time.  As any leader of a new product development team will tell you, it’s about continually communicating the vision to create the hundreds of tipping points that motivate individuals and teams to act in ways that move a project forward.

What we need to foster for successful new product development are leadership behaviors that do more to inspire, persuade, coach and exemplify.  It’s a risk worth taking and the right story can be a huge asset.

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