Are You Writing Memos When You Should Be Telling Stories?

Good stories can help engage all your readers

Good stories can help engage all your readers faster

How do you connect with your community?  Stories are a great way to move people to action this week Dennis Fischman of Communicate! Consulting shares his secrets to telling great stories. His tips will help you become a better storyteller. Please share this with your communities if they are trying to share their stories to help make a difference in the world.

“My Hands Shook”

All week, I’m a communications consultant for businesses and nonprofit organizations.  Then, every Sunday morning, I tutor twelve-year-olds for the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony that’s called bar mitzvah for boys or bat mitzvah for girls.

The kids have to do a lot of work. They are preparing to chant ancient words in Hebrew from a handwritten scroll that contains no vowels, no punctuation, and no musical notes to guide them.

At a certain point—it happens to almost all of them—they lose confidence. “I always mispronounce that word,” one tells me.  “I’ll never get that tune right!” another says.  And the irony is that they are so close, right at that moment.  All they need is to know they can do it.

So I tell them the story of my bar mitzvah.

When I got up to read from the Torah scroll that day, I was nervous.  In fact, my hands shook.  But my voice was steady, and I chanted the words I had studied for the whole year before my bar mitzvah day.  Afterwards, I was still nervous.  In fact, when the service ended, I went to the boys’ bathroom and didn’t come out for fifteen minutes! But I did it, and everyone was proud—and everyone will be proud of you too.

The student gets wide-eyed, begins to smile, takes a deep breath, and gets back to work.

The Magic Ingredients Your Story Must Include

The story I tell my students contains three ingredients that your story must include, too, if you want to motivate and inspire people in your organization.

  1. The wonderful destination. In my story, it was arriving at the bar/bat mitzvah day and making everybody proud.  What’s the happy ending your coworkers can look forward to if they work with you toward a common goal?
  2. The difficult place we are in now. In my story, it was studying hard and still being nervous.  What’s the difficult place your organization is in now?  What’s holding people back from changing it?
  3. The way we are going to travel to the destination. In my story, I asked the students to stick with it and to learn some new study techniques from me in order to succeed.  What are you asking people in your organization to do to change things for the better?

Does Storytelling Work for Organizations?

I heard the following story by reading Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Dr. Donald Berwick thought he could save lives, with a little help.  He studied the “defect rate” in health care and found that as many as 10% of patients did not receive antibiotics at the right time (for instance).  The research was there to prove it.  Yet no change was happening.

Berwick said to hospital administrators at a major convention:

Here is what I think we should do. I think we should save 100,000 lives.  And I think we should do that by June 14, 2006—18 months from today.  Some is not a number; soon is not a time.  Here’s the number: 100,000.  Here’s the time: June 14, 2006—9 a.m.

That speech set the destination. To explain where the health care industry was and why it had to change, he brought in the mother of a girl who’d been killed by a medical error.  To make the way clearer and easier, he provided step-by-step instruction guides, training, and chances for peers in the industry to learn from one another.

Eighteen months later, on June 14, 2006 at 9 a.m., Berwick announced the initiative had saved 122,300 lives. If you have been in a hospital since 2004, one of those lives may be yours.

 Storytelling as Leadership

If you think of yourself as a leader, probably you see something that needs to be changed and you are one person who’s willing to work to change it.  But one person never does it alone. To make any major change in an organization, you are going to need to motivate and inspire a whole range of people, from the C-suite to the customer service representative.  How do you start?

You don’t do it with a memo. It may never be read.  It may be misunderstood.

You don’t do it with a meeting.  Calling a meeting lets people know how much the new initiative matters to you—but it doesn’t make it matter to them.

Try making change in your organization by telling the right story.


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