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Tell Me a Story

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To win hearts and minds, nothing beats a good narrative

When discussing the challenges of working parents, I often go back to one memorable night almost 20 years ago.

My daughter Julie, age 7, had meningitis and my husband and I alternated time at the hospital – while tending our jobs on the side.

The day she was released, we eagerly anticipated our first peaceful night of sleep in a week.

But at 1 a.m., he woke up suddenly, did a complete somersault and landed on the floor at the foot of our bed.

“I was playing baseball,” he said, recounting a dream, “and I was caught in a pickle between my brother Dick and Fuzzy Zoeller!”

Minutes later we heard our son Ed, age 5 at the time, loudly singing the Lion King song, a family signal that he needed attention.

My husband checked on him. Then I heard a loud “bam” as the hall bathroom door was slammed.

“A small black bat is flapping around in there,” my husband said calmly when he returned, as if it happened every night. “We will catch it and release it in the morning.”

“Of course,” I thought to myself, “Julie is sick, you are playing imaginary baseball with golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, Ed imagines he is in the African savannah and there’s a real live bat in the bathroom…

”And I have to be at work in the morning!“

And of course, I was fine at work – ready to handle the day’s challenges with no particular mention of the crazy night before.

Except: I had a great story to tell forever…. about the exhaustion and unpredictability of managing work and parenthood.

In our 25 years of working with organizations to implement and manage change, we have learned at The Wunderlin Company that these kinds of stories can play an important role in how we talk with each other. We collect stories and encourage friends, colleagues and clients to make story-telling a habit because it will strengthen and enrich their communication skills.

MayaAngelouWhy? In times when we are bombarded with more information and data than ever before, narratives, anecdotes, images and metaphors play an indispensible role by helping us make points vividly, memorably and persuasively. As Maya Angelou once said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And stories make you feel.

At work our mission often emphasizes analytical thinking: Fix the systems; re-engineer the process; enhance quality; streamline procedures; flatten organizational structures.

But as communications consultant Andy Goodman says, “Data doesn’t change your mind…but a story can.”
Argument and analysis alone might excite the mind but they rarely touch the heart. And they rarely cut through the complexity, clutter, chaos and confusion of real-life work.

Storytelling supplements analytical thinking. The right story communicates complicated ideas and drives commitment and action. It enables people to imagine new perspectives during the process of change. It gets people to pay attention. You can see facial expressions relax and alertness increase.

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Learning to tell good stories

So this newsletter issue is devoted to the art and craft of storytelling in the business and organizational environment.

TEDAnd it’s for everyone. In our experience, it’s not just top bosses who can effectively use storytelling to share a vision or encourage change: We recently coached more than a dozen mid-level managers to share best-practice stories at a large company meeting, using a short, vivid format modeled loosely on the hugely popular TED talks.

Anyone can become a better storyteller. Here are four strategies to polish your skills.

1. Craft the right kind of story to accomplish your goal

A story can spark action, communicate who you are, transmit values, foster collaboration, tame the grapevine, share knowledge or lead people into the future.

Start by asking yourself three questions: What do you want your listeners to feel after they hear your story? What do you want them to remember from your story? What do you want them to believe as a result of your story?

TheLeader'sGuideStephen Denning, who wrote “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling,” shares this story in a Harvard Business Review article. The story’s goal: to defuse a mentality of “us-and-them”
that had grown up between workers and management at a manufacturing site for laptop computers.

“Stories circulated among the blue-collar workers about the facility’s managers, who were accused of ‘not doing any real work,’ ‘being overpaid,’ and ‘having no idea what it’s like on the manufacturing line.’ But an additional story was injected into the mix: One day, a new site director turned up in a white coat, unannounced and unaccompanied, and sat on the line making ThinkPads. He asked workers on the assembly line for help. In response, someone asked him, ‘Why do you earn so much more than I do?’ His simple reply: ‘If you screw up badly, you lose your job. If I screw up badly, 3,000 people lose their jobs.’

“The manager’s words—and actions—served as a seed for the story that eventually circulated in opposition to the one about managers being lazy and overpaid. You can imagine the buzz: ‘You should’ve seen how he fumbled with those circuit boards. I guess he’ll never work on the line. But you know, he does have a point about his pay.’

“The atmosphere at the facility began improving within weeks.”

SquirrelIncFor a useful chart that describes Denning’s suggestions for effective storytelling by objective, zip to a chart near the end of "Squirrel, Inc.," an earlier book he wrote.

2. Listen to other people’s stories

Good storytellers learn by listening well to others. One great storyteller I know grew up on a farm – and was regularly entertained by relatives who spent hours telling tales on front porches. Another first-rate storyteller is a minister’s daughter who has listened to sermons -- replete with anecdotes -- every Sunday of her life.
You can train yourself to find good stories anywhere – from reading to your children to watching a favorite TV show.
And today storytelling is celebrated in so many inspiring new formats.

The TED website lists 89 talks about story-telling -- from author Malcolm Gladwell to director Andrew Stanton. The Moth story-telling phenomenon – 5 minutes of powerful true story-telling born on public radio – is now performed live in several cities, including mine. Its guidelines emphasize immediacy and starting with a story’s end in mind.

When your antennae are out, good stories are everywhere.

Here’s one from a friend’s son about turning a personal problem into an asset at work:

This left-handed 30-year-old had terrible handwriting – but it had not stalled his progress through a series of paralegal jobs or graduate school. In his new role as a high-school English teacher, it became trickier.
Students squinted and struggled to read his comments on papers and tests. They couldn’t easily decipher his scrawl on the blackboard.

So he did two things: First, he wrote more of his comments on student work on a computer and attached printouts to papers and tests.

Second, he encouraged his students to help with simple writing tasks: They took turns writing on the blackboard, volunteered to keep book lists and jumped in to create bulletin board displays.

The result: classroom teamwork changed the spirit of the learning process. “I am a teacher with really bad hand-writing,” he wrote in The Atlantic recently. “But somehow it’s made me better at my job.“

“Allowing them to help me cope with my problem shows I am honest; it shrinks the divide between us, making me more approachable and authentic. Our relationship becomes more of a partnership. I’d rather have that than perfect handwriting.”

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3. Get stories started

Whether you are a CEO, a team leader or a new hire, you can help move the story-telling movement forward in your organization by looking for images and examples that illustrate or spotlight key values and goals.

“Everyone is a storyteller -- a weaver of their experience,” says TWC colleague Judy Futch.

So, she says, it makes sense to ask all the folks on your team about their insights and understanding of positive experiences at work:

  • What are the best times that you have had at our organization – when you felt most alive, involved, or excited?
  • What do you value deeply about yourself, your work, and our organization?
  • What do you think is at the core of this organization? What would make this organization more vital?
  • What in our organization gives you confidence for the future? If a genie emerged from a bottle and gave you three wishes for this organization, what would they be?

Listen to the stories that emerge from asking of these questions – and you will see story possibilities emerge.
Here’s another storytelling approach we use with clients – usually to help them envision the future:

“Let’s say Fortune magazine is going to do a story on your organization’s success in the year 2020. What would the headline say? What examples would they use to describe what your organization had accomplished? What are some quotes you’d like to read?”

The next step, of course, is how to get your organization to that destination.

4. Keep a rich stream of ideas coming your way

Since we first wrote about the importance of narratives in this newsletter a decade ago, storytelling has been getting more respect.

In times of too much information and slide-data overload, TWC colleague Merrell Grant suggests elevating the importance of stories by starting weekly meetings asking, “What stories do you have to share this week?”

Here are a couple fill-in-the-blank storytelling suggestions from the popular website Social Media Today.

One script is from Emma Coats, story artist at Pixar: “Once upon a time there was _________. Every day _________. One day _________. Because of that _________. Because of that _________. Until finally _________.”

In another example, copywriter Kevin Rogers suggests this script: “My name is _________, I love _________ but was fed up with _________. So I created _________ that _________.”

You can also get inspiration browsing these great resources that testify to the explosion of interest in telling stories these days:

Take in some tips from Fast Company magazine on using great storytelling to grow your business. Two key suggestions: Use vivid sensory language and make sure your story has a “spine.” In another article, you can read 10 great tips for story telling.

Read this Harvard Business Review article -- “Storytelling that moves people” -- by Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer. Among its suggestions: people will find stories more credible if the narrative reveals the storyteller’s weaknesses or mistakes.

ThisAmericanLifeGet encouragement from public radio’s Ira Glass, creator of the award-winning “This American Life” – a show composed of varied stories. His main advice: Practice. It takes time to get good at this. Foreshadow your message. And make crystal clear the meaning of the stories you tell – don’t assume people will get it.

Finally, just one more story…

People sometimes ask me how I wound up as a consultant. I tell them my story to illustrate how work lives evolve.

My first job was at GE – where I learned to facilitate and led process-improvement teams.

At the same time, I was also managing two toddlers while my husband concentrated on turning around a manufacturing business.

My secret was a flexible schedule at work.

At the same time, folks I had worked with at GE -- who had gone to other companies -- started to call me and ask if I knew people who could facilitate a meeting or work with a team.

I remember thinking: “Yes… me!

Shortly after that, GE indicated it was no longer able to maintain my flexible work schedule.

So I left to do consulting for a little while until my life calmed down.

And here I am -- 20 years later – writing a column that underscores the value of letting your work life story develop one chapter at a time.

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