“We’ve never had a policy manual. The way we pass along our values is to sit around the campfire and share stories.”
That’s the CEO of a $1.3 billion company talking.
Elizabeth Weil, in Fast Company magazine, interviewed many business leaders about the power of storytelling. “Leadership is about change,” says Noel M. Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School and the coauthor of The Leadership Engine (HarperBusiness, 1997). “It’s about taking people from where they are now to where they need to be. The best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.”
In other words, by telling them stories.
Why Tell a Story?
The Where We Are Going story is a basic tool of corporate leadership. It works just as well in for-profit and nonprofit settings. But why tell a story?
Well, you could just write a memo instead. But you know what happens with most memos. They pile up, on desks or in email inboxes, and eventually they go into the trash. If people do read them, the leader still has to wonder: Do they understand the intent? Will they remember?
A memo is a slight thing. You could hand them a vision statement, a strategy, or even a plan. But you’d run into the same problems. Longer documents are more likely to be skimmed. The point may not be clear, and it may not stick in the mind.
Storytelling is different. Psychological research tells us that storytelling “seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.” The story gets us all to put our defenses down and let the information in. The more engaging the story, the better we believe it.
The Story about Where We Are Going
I can think of two different ways of telling the story of what will happen if your organization succeeds. One is what the world will look like at the end. The other is the travelogue of how you intend to get there.
Here’s an example from the nonprofit world (and if you run a for-profit business, just think “customers” instead of clients).
An organization that serves youth sets the goal, “We’re going to offer art education to every student in our neighborhood.” How do they tell this as a story?
Story #1: Five years from now, a mom walks into our center. By her side a small boy stands, fidgeting, not meeting our eyes. “My son draws all the time, and he’s good,” Mom says. “But no one ever taught him how to get better.”
“We will,” you say. “Sign up right here. Son, do you draw with pencils, crayons, or computers?”
Story #2: Tomorrow, we’re cleaning up that classroom. Next week, we’re hiring an art teacher. He gets a budget to go buy supplies. In the meantime, we’re going to put the word out with flyers, email, and social media, in English, Spanish, and Chinese, that we have an art program for children who live in this neighborhood.
This year, we’ll arrange with the museum for free field trips. We’ll take children’s artwork and tell their stories to local businesses and raise money for the program. We’ll expand. In five years, everybody will know about it, and we’ll have enough teachers, supplies, and space to serve everyone who wants it. (That’s where Story #1 begins!)
Story #1 sets the direction and inspires. Story #2 lays out the road map and gives confidence that your organization can get to where it is going.
So sit back and think.
- Where are you trying to get your organization to go?
- What’s the story that shows what the world will look like when you succeed?
- What’s your travel story about how you will get there?
Ready? Start, “Once upon a time…”