1: Until recently, leadership and storytelling were thought to live in two separate worlds.
Stephen Denning describes himself as having made a “career of scoffing at touchy-feely stuff,” he writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. “Like most other business executives, I knew that analytical was good, anecdotal was bad.”
Stephen was an executive at the World Bank, “but had it been any other large, modern organization, the discourse would have been essentially the same: rates of return, cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments, performance targets, budgets, work programs, the bottom line.”
Storytelling, he writes, was thought to be: “Soft.” “Fuzzy.” “Emotional.” “Fluffy.” “Anecdotal.” “Irrational.” “Fantasy.” “Fairy stories.” “Primitive.” “Childish.”
And yet, when Stephen told a simple story within the World Bank about a health worker in a remote town in Zambia who went to the website of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and got the answer to a question about the treatment of malaria, the entire organization pivoted in a new direction.
“Having spent my life believing in the dream of reason, I was startled to find that an appropriately told story had the power to do what rigorous analysis couldn’t: to communicate a strange new idea and move people to enthusiastic action,” he recalls.
2: The skepticism between the storytellers and for-profit business was bi-directional. The storytelling world also viewed “leadership stories” with suspicion.
In fact, when Stephen shared his Zambia story with master storyteller J. G. “Paw-Paw” Pinkerton, the reaction was borderline hostile.
“He said he didn’t hear a story at all,” Stephen writes. “There was no real ‘telling.’ There was no plot. There was no building up of the characters. Who was this health worker in Zambia? And what was her world like? What did it feel like to be in the exotic environment of Zambia, facing the problems she faced? My anecdote, he said, was a pathetic thing, not a story at all. I needed to start from scratch if I hoped to turn it into a ‘real story.'”
Stephen was initially taken aback by the negative reaction. Still, “I knew in my heart it was wrong,” he remembers. “And with that realization, I was on the brink of an important insight: Beware the well-told story!”
3: Stephen wasn’t confused about what Paw-Paw was recommending. “I saw immediately how to flesh out my modest anecdote about the health worker in Zambia: you’d dramatically depict her life, the scourge of malaria that she faced in her work, and perhaps the pain and suffering of the patients she was treating that day. You’d describe the extraordinary set of events that led to her being seated in front of a computer screen deep in the hinterland of Zambia,” he writes.
“You’d build up to the moment of triumph when she found the answer to her question about malaria and vividly describe how that answer could transform the life of her patient,” he notes. “The story would be a veritable epic!”
Yet, telling his story in this way “would not galvanize [his World Bank colleagues] to implement a strange new idea like knowledge management,” he writes. “In the hectic modern workplace, people had neither the time nor the patience to absorb a richly detailed narrative.”
The bottom line? “If I was going to hold the attention of my audience, I had to make my point in seconds, not in minutes.”
Moreover, by including many specific details, his listeners could not relate the story to their own world. “Although I was describing a health worker in Zambia, I wanted my audience to focus not on Zambia but on their own situations,” he surmises. “I hoped they would think, ‘if the CDC can reach a health worker in Zambia, why can’t the World Bank? Why don’t we put our knowledge on a website?'”
In Stephen’s situation, and in our situation as business leaders, less may be more: “A minimalist narrative was effective precisely because it lacked detail and texture. The same characteristic that the professional storyteller saw as a flaw was, for my purposes, a strength.”
Reflection: What lessons can I learn from Stephen’s approach to a “minimalist narrative” to achieve business success?
Action: Experiment with this approach the next time I am pitching something.