Different goals. Different stories.
Yesterday, we looked a the power of a springboard story.
1: As leaders, we want to have many different types of stories in our leadership tool belt. We are wise to “employ a variety of narrative patterns for different aims,” Stephen Denning writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. “The point is that there is no single way to tell a story. Instead, narrative comprises an array of tools, each suitable to a different purpose.”
“Much of the intellectual capital of an organization is not written down anywhere but resides in the minds of the staff,” Steven observes. “Communicating this know-how across an organization and beyond typically occurs informally through sharing stories.”
Knowledge-sharing narratives are quite different from other stories. There is no traditional “hero,” and there is no plot. “They set out a description of the problem, the setting, the solution, and the explanation,” Steven writes. “Because they highlight a problem—say, the challenge employees face in learning to use a new system—they tend to have a negative tone. And because they often focus in detail on why a particular solution worked, they may be of little interest outside a defined group of people.”
Yesterday, we talked about how springboard stories that inspire action need a positive tone and a happy ending. Not so for stories that share knowledge. “Using success stories typically fails to communicate knowledge,” he writes, “because it risks missing the nitty-gritty of how things actually get done in the world.”
Knowledge-sharing stories lack most of the pieces of a conventional story. They are, however, “the uncelebrated workhorse of organizational narrative,” he observes.
Communicating Who We Are As Leaders
People will not follow us if they don’t trust us. As leaders, to earn their trust, we must share who we are, where we’ve come from, and why we think what we think.
“Stories for this purpose are usually based on a life event that reveals some strength of vulnerability and shows what the speaker took from the experience,” writes Stephen. If done right, our team or audience will understand and empathize with us.
“Unlike a story designed to spark action, this kind is typically ‘well told,’ with colorful detail and context,” Stephen suggests. “So the speaker needs to ensure that the audience has enough time and interest to hear the story.”
Communicating What our Organization Stands For
These types of stories resemble the stories leaders tell to share who they are. “Just as individuals need trust if they are to lead, so companies need trust if their products and services are to succeed in the marketplace,” Stephen writes. “For customers to trust a company and its products, they have to know what sort of company they are dealing with, what kinds of values it espouses, and how its people approach meeting customers’ needs.”
Strong brands are built on a narrative. But “the brand narrative is owned by the customer, not the company,” Stephen observes. “It’s a story that the customer has about the company and its products and services.”
The organization makes a “brand promise,” but then it must keep this promise by delivering on it. The goal here is to have clients, customers, and partners tell the story and for it to spread virally or by word-of-mouth.
Stories that transmit our values tell our stakeholders “how things are done around here.” The goal is to prevent problems by outlining established limits on negative behavior.
“These narratives often take the form of a parable. Religious leaders have used them for thousands of years to communicate values,” Stephen suggests. “The facts of such tales can be hypothetical, but they must be believable. For example, a story might tell the sad fate of someone who failed to see the conflict of interest in not disclosing a personal financial interest in a company supplier.
“Every management textbook talks about the value of getting people to work together,” Stephen notes. “But most don’t offer advice on making that happen in real-life work environments except for generalities like, ‘Encourage conversations.'”
How do we actually do this?
“One approach is to generate a common narrative around a group’s concerns and goals, beginning with a story told by one member of the group. Ideally that first story sparks another, which sparks another. If the process continues, group members develop a shared perspective that enables a sense of community to emerge naturally.”
For this approach to work, the first story must be “emotionally moving enough” to encourage others to listen and share their own stories. An example would be a story about how the speaker solved a challenging work situation.
“For this process to occur, it is best if the group has an open agenda that allows the stories to surface organically,” he suggests. “It is also desirable to have a plan ready so that the energy generated by the positive experience of sharing stories can be immediately channeled into action.”
2: As we become more comfortable telling leadership stories, we can experiment using different narrative combinations.
Exhibit one: “A presentation to introduce a new idea might first involve telling a story to get the audience’s attention by talking about a problem or concern to the audience, followed by a springboard story to communicate a new idea and spark action related to it, and then, if the response is positive, concluding with knowledge-sharing stories showing how to deal with the issues of implementation.
Exhibit two: A presentation about the strategic direction of an organization might begin with a personal identity story (“who I am”) followed by the company identity story (“who we are”), eventually leading on to a future story (“who we are going to be”).
Reflection: As I kick off the new year, what is my most important professional goal? What type of story could I tell to help me achieve success?
Action: Tell it!