1: “Human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.” Malcolm Gladwell tells us.

Exhibit one: If we want to inspire people into action, providing detailed scenarios doesn’t work.

Why? “Even if believable when disseminated, such scenarios quickly become discredited as the future unfolds in unexpected ways,” Stephen Denning writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.

Yesterday, we looked at how storytelling is a core competency of leadership. “Leadership above all is about getting people to change,” Stephen notes. We must “communicate the complex nature of the changes required and inspire an often skeptical organization to enthusiastically carry them out.”

No easy task.

“Troubled CEOs, stressed change agents, hard-pressed marketers, stymied idealists, mystery politicians, puzzled parents,” all want “to induce change,” Stephen writes in his book The Secret Language of Leadership. We seek “to transmit bold new ideas to people who don’t want to hear them, and have the ideas implemented with sustained energy.”

2: A critical aspect of the leader’s job is preparing people for what lies ahead. Which is why storytelling is so important. “A story can help take listeners from where they are now to where they need to be by getting them familiar and comfortable with the future in their minds.”

The problem? “Crafting a credible narrative about the future when the future is unknowable,” Stephen writes.

The answer: We tell a specific type of story, what Stephen calls a “springboard story.” Because this type of narrative “enables listeners to visualize the large-scale transformation needed in their circumstances and then to act on that realization,” he writes.  

“The best way to get humans to venture into unknown terrain is to make that terrain familiar and desirable by taking them there first in their imaginations.”

How? “Hearing about a change that has already happened can help listeners to imagine how it might play out in the future,” Stephen notes.

3: There are some “do’s” and don’ts ” to telling a successful springboard story.

“A springboard story is based on an actual event, preferably recent enough to seem relevant. It has a single protagonist with whom members of the target audience can identify. And it has an authentically happy ending, in which a change has at least in part been implemented successfully. (It also has an implicit alternate ending–an unhappy one that would have resulted had the change not occurred.)”

So, how much detail should we include? Enough. But not too much.  

Why? Because if there’s too much detail and context, the “audience becomes completely wrapped up in it,” he observes. They won’t be able to imagine the story occurring inside their organization. Suppose we want our team to embrace a new technology. In that case, we might tell the story of another team in our organization that has successfully done the implementation without sharing too much information about the specifics.  

We apply this same thinking to the amount of detail we provide about the envisioned future.  

This was the lesson Stephen learned while researching many of the most famous “vision” speeches: “I discovered that most of the successful ones were surprisingly sketchy about the details of the imagined future. Consider Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Neither of these famous addresses came close to describing the future in enough detail that it became familiar terrain in listener’s minds.”

We embrace the fact that the future is unknowable. “Specific predictions about the future are likely to be proved wrong,” Stephen writes. “Because they almost inevitably differ in major or minor ways from what eventually happens, leaders who utter them risk losing people’s confidence.”

Our goal as leaders is to tell a story that evokes the future and provides direction—without being too precise and thus inaccurate.  

Former GE Chairman Jack Welch achieved this end when he put forward his mandate that General Electric would be number one or number two in each industry it competed in, or it would exit the sector. “This is a clear but broad-brush description of where Welch wanted to take the company,” Stephen notes.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Consider telling a springboard story using Stephen’s template below.

Defining the Story:

  1. What is your change idea?
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. What action do you want your audience to take?
  4. Think of an incident where the change idea has been successfully implemented, at least in part.
  5. In that incident, can you find a single individual who is similar to your audience and could be the protagonist of your story?
  6. Does the story have an authentically positive ending for the protagonist?
  7. Will the audience see it as an authentically positive ending for them?
  8. Does the story fully embody the change idea? If not, can it be extrapolated so that it does?

Assembling the Story:

  1. Begin with: The date. The place. The protagonist.
  2. What obstacles was the protagonist facing?
  3. What would have happened without the change idea?
  4. What did the protagonist do to overcome the obstacles?
  5. What was the happy ending for the protagonist?
  6. Check that the story has the right level of detail.
  7. Link the story to the change idea by “What if…” or “Just think…” or “Imagine…”

Practicing the Story:

  1. Practice telling the story a number of times and observe the audience’s reaction.
  2. Amend the story in the light of experience before telling it to your target audience.

Action: Tell it!

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