The art of a good story isn’t confined to water-cooler gossip. It’s emerging as a point of difference for leaders in successful organisations of all sizes. Gabrielle Dolan explains why.
Organisational storytelling, corporate storytelling, business storytelling. Call it what you like, but even a few years ago, any of these variations were often met with blank, bemused stares and an uncertain: “That’s different.”
Different it is, but fast forward to 2007 and it seems the business world has a thirst to find out more about organisational storytelling (storytelling with a business purpose) and its business applications.
But why now? I believe the growing interest in organisational storytelling is a result of the transition from an ‘information age’ to a ‘conceptual age’. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, discusses this as a seismic, though as yet undetected, shift now underway in much of the advanced world.
So what does the conceptual age mean for today’s business leaders? In the information age, a large part of a leader’s role was to provide information. But that was before email, before the internet, before cable TV, before blogs and podcasts, before Google, before You Tube and before chat rooms.
Today your employees, suppliers and customers have access to limitless information. The role of leader has therefore shifted from being the information source (although this is still sometimes important and necessary) to now helping people make sense of information; to help people understand what is important and what is not; to explain the data in such a way that it makes sense and resonates with them. This can be done effectively, yet quite simply, with storytelling.
For example, a client we worked with knew that his team did not need any more information on the importance of meeting weekly targets on quality sales leads. They were up to their eyeballs in information. What he needed to do as a leader was to make the data resonate with them in a personal way – and he did that successfully with a story….
His story was about how as a kid he hated Brussels sprouts. He always left Brussels sprouts to the end of his meal, but his mother never let him leave the table without eating them. One day he decided to eat the brussel sprouts straight away and then sat back and enjoyed the rest of his meal.
He narrated this to his regional team and ended by connecting his brussel sprouts experience to how everyone saw weekly sales leads targets. Something they all knew they had to do but hated doing. He asked the team if they could approach their weekly sales leads like brussel sprouts – hitting them first and early in the week. The following week he experienced the best week ever for the number of quality sales leads generated. The term “Brussels sprouts” also became short-hand within the team for meeting their weekly targets!
In examples like these we see how storytelling is moving from just something that people do at the water cooler or in the tea room to a serious business skill that can be used daily to communicate, motivate and engage. It is now being integrated into corporate leadership programs as well as change management and communication strategies.
Stephen Denning, the father of organisational storytelling and former program director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank, believes “as more and more firms grasp that narrative is central to addressing many of today’s key leadership challenges – the question becomes: how is a CEO to make effective use of storytelling?”
The good news is that we all have the ability to tell stories and that organisational storytelling is a skill that can be taught and learnt. With practice and coaching, everyone can get better at it.
Three years ago I took up karate. Before this I thought I knew how to punch. However with some new skills and techniques and ongoing coaching and practice, now when I deliver a punch it is a hell of a lot more powerful and effective. You can do the same with your stories.
Gabrielle Dolan is co-founder and Director of One Thousand & One, Australia’s first and only company specialising in organisational storytelling. Her current interest (besides storytelling) is training and competing in half-marathons (with the occasional crazy thought of completing a full marathon one day).