The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrativeby Stephen Denning
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In his best-selling book, Squirrel Inc., former World Bank executive and master storyteller Stephen Denning used a tale to show why storytelling is a critical skill for leaders. Now, in this hands-on guide, Denning explains how you can learn to tell the right story at the right time. Whoever you are in the organization CEO, middle management, or someone on the front lines you can lead by using stories to effect change. Filled with myriad examples, A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling shows how storytelling is one of the few available ways to handle the principal and most difficult challenges of leadership: sparking action, getting people to work together, and leading people into the future. The right kind of story at the right time, can make an organization “stunningly vulnerable” to a new idea.
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The Leader's Guide to Storytelling
By Stephen Denning
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7675-X
Chapter OneTELLING THE RIGHT STORY
Choosing the Right Story for the Leadership Challenge at Hand "Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning." -Mary Catherine Bateson
In 1998, I made a pilgrimage to the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, seeking enlightenment. As program director of knowledge management at the World Bank, I'd stumbled onto the power of storytelling. Despite a career of scoffing at such touchy-feely stuff-like most business executives, I knew that analytical was good, anecdotal was bad-my thinking had started to change. Over the past few years, I'd seen stories help galvanize an organization around a defined business goal.
In the mid-1990s, that goal was to get people at the World Bank to support efforts at knowledge management-a strange notion in the organization at the time. I offered people cogent arguments about the need to gather the knowledge scattered throughout the organization. They didn't listen. I gave PowerPoint presentations that compellingly demonstrated the value of sharing and leveraging our know-how. My audiences merely looked dazed. In desperation, I was ready to try almost anything.
Then in 1996 I began telling people a story:
In June of last year, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and got the answer to a questionabout the treatment of malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it was in a tiny place six hundred kilometers from the capital city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn't in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues, that knowledge isn't available to the millions of people who could use it. Imagine if it were. Think what an organization we could become.
This simple story helped World Bank staff and managers envision a different kind of future for the organization. When knowledge management later became an official corporate priority, I used similar stories to maintain the momentum. So I began to wonder how the tool of narrative might be put to work even more effectively. As a rational manager, I decided to consult the experts.
At the International Storytelling Center, I told the Zambia story to a professional storyteller, J. G. "Paw-Paw" Pinkerton, and asked the master what he thought. Imagine my chagrin when he said he didn't hear a story at all. 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."
Was I surprised? Well, not exactly. The story was bland. I did have a problem with this advice from the expert, though. I knew in my heart it was wrong. And with that realization, I was on the brink of an important insight: Beware the well-told story!
The Power of Narrative
But let me back up a bit. Do stories really have a role to play in the business world? Believe me, I'm familiar with skepticism about them. When you talk about storytelling to a group of hardheaded executives, you'd better be prepared for some eye rolling. If the group is polite as well as tough, don't be surprised if the eyes simply glaze over.
That's because most executives operate with a particular-and generally justified-mind-set. Analysis is what drives business thinking. It seemingly cuts through the fog of myth, gossip, and speculation to get to the hard facts. It purports to go wherever the observations and premises and conclusions take it, undistorted by the hopes or fears of the analyst. Its strength lies in its objectivity, its impersonality, its heartlessness.
Yet this strength is also a weakness. Analysis might excite the mind, but it hardly offers a route to the heart. And that's where you must go if you are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm. At a time when corporate survival often requires transformational change, leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar and often unwelcome ways. Mind-numbing cascades of numbers or daze-inducing PowerPoint slides won't achieve this goal. Even logical arguments for making the needed changes usually won't do the trick.
But effective storytelling often does. In fact, in certain situations, nothing else works. Although good business cases are developed through the use of numbers, they are typically approved on the basis of a story-that is, a narrative that links a set of events in some kind of causal sequence. Storytelling can translate those dry and abstract numbers into compelling pictures of a leader's goals. I saw this happen at the World Bank-by 2000, we were increasingly recognized as leaders in the area of knowledge management-and have seen it in scores of other large organizations since then.
So why did I have problems with the advice I'd received from the professional storyteller in Jonesborough?
A "Poorly Told" Story
The timing of my trip to Tennessee was fortunate. Had I sought expert advice two years earlier, I might have taken the master's recommendations without question. But I'd had some time to approach the idea of organizational storytelling with a beginner's mind, free of strictures about the right way to tell a story.
It wasn't that I couldn't follow the Jonesborough storyteller's recommendations. 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 patient 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. You'd delineate the false leads she had followed before she came across the CDC Web site. 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. The story would be a veritable epic!
This traditional, or maximalist, account would be more engrossing than my dry anecdote. But I had learned enough by then to realize that telling the story in this way to a corporate audience would not galvanize implementation of a strange new idea like knowledge management. I knew that in the hectic modern workplace, people had neither the time nor the patience-remember executives' general skepticism about storytelling in the first place-to absorb a richly detailed narrative. If I was going to hold the attention of my audience, I had to make my point in seconds, not in minutes.
There was another problem. Even if my audience did take the time to listen to a fully developed tale, telling it in that fashion would not allow listeners the mental space to relate the story to their own very different worlds. Although I was describing a health worker in Zambia, I wanted my audience to focus not on Zambia but on their own situations. 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 Web site and broaden our scope?" If my listeners were immersed in a saga about that health worker and her patient, they might be too preoccupied to ask themselves these questions-or to provide answers. In other words, I didn't want my audience too interested in Zambia. 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.
On my return from Jonesborough, I educated myself on the principles of traditional storytelling. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle, in his Poetics, said stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They should include complex characters as well as a plot that incorporates a reversal of fortune and a lesson learned. Furthermore, the storyteller should be so engaged with the story-visualizing the action, feeling what the characters feel-that the listeners become drawn into the narrative's world. Aristotle's formula has proved successful over the ages, from Ovid's Metapmorphoses to The Arabian Nights to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and most Hollywood screenplays.
Despite the narrative power of this kind of story, I knew that it probably wouldn't spark action in an organization. My insight blinded me to something else, though. Believing that this wonderful and rich tradition had no place in the time-constrained world of modern business was as wrongheaded as thinking that all stories had to be full of detail and color. Later on, I would see that the well-told story is relevant in a modern organization. Indeed, a number of surprises about the use of storytelling in organizations awaited me.
Tales of Success and Failure
In December 2000 I left the World Bank and began to consult with companies on their knowledge management programs and, by extension, their use of organizational stories. The following year, I found myself in London with Dave Snowden, then a director of IBM's Institute of Knowledge Management, teaching a storytelling master class to around seventy executives from private and public sector organizations.
In the morning, I spoke about my experience at the World Bank and how a positive orientation was essential if a narrative like the one about Zambia was to have its intended effect. But in the afternoon, to my dismay, my fellow presenter emphatically asserted the opposite.
At IBM and elsewhere, Dave had found purely positive stories to be problematic. They were, he said, like the Janet and John stories told to children in the United Kingdom or the Dick and Jane stories in the United States: the characters were so good they made you feel queasy. The naughtiest thing Janet and John would do was spill a bottle of water in the yard. Then they would go and tell their mother about it and promise never to do it again. Janet would volunteer to help with the cleanup and John would offer to help wash the car. These stories for children reflected a desire to show things as they should be rather than as they actually are. In a corporate environment, Dave told his audience, listeners would respond to such rosy tales by conjuring up negative anti-stories about what must have actually happened. His message: Beware the positive story!
After the workshop, Dave and I discussed why his stories focused on the negative while mine accentuated the positive. I could see he had a point. I'd used negative stories myself when trying to teach people the nitty-gritty of any subject. The fact is, people learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.
Eventually, however, it dawned on me that our points of view were complementary. We were talking about organizational stories used for different purposes: my stories were designed to motivate people, and Dave's were designed to share knowledge. His stories might describe how and why a team failed to accomplish an objective, with the aim of helping others avoid the same mistakes. (To elicit such stories, however, Dave often had to start by getting people to talk about their successes, even if these accounts were ultimately less useful vehicles for conveying knowledge.) It was then that I began to realize that the purpose of telling a story might determine its form.
Granted, even optimistic stories have to be true and believable, since jaded corporate audiences know too well the experience of being presented with half-truths. Stories told in an effort to spur action need to make good on their promises and contain sufficient evidence of a positive outcome. But stories intended mainly to transfer knowledge must be more than true. Because their objective is to generate understanding and not action, they tend to highlight the pitfalls of ignorance; they are meant not to inspire people but to make them cautious. Just as my minimalist stories to spark action were different from traditional entertainment stories told in a maximalist fashion, so an effective knowledge-sharing story would have negative rather than positive overtones.
A Collective Yawn
Once I saw that different narrative forms can further different business goals, I looked for other ways that managers could make stories work for them. A number of distinct story types began to emerge-ones that didn't necessarily follow Aristotelian guidelines but were nonetheless used to good effect in a variety of organizations. (For descriptions of some of them and the purposes for which they might be used, see the section titled "A Storytelling Catalog.") And I continued to come across unexpected insights about the nature of storytelling within organizations.
For one thing, if negative stories have their place, so do apparently boring ones. In Talking about Machines, Julian Orr recounts a number of stories that have circulated among photocopy machine repair technicians at Xerox. While rich in detail, they are even less storylike than my little anecdote about the health care worker in Zambia. Most of these tales, which present solutions to technical problems faced by the technicians, lack a plot and a distinct character. In fact, they are hardly stories at all, with little to hold the interest of anyone except those close to the often-esoteric subject matter. Why are they compelling even to this limited audience? Because they are driven forward by a detailed explanation of the cause-and-effect relationship between an action and its consequence. For example:
You've got a malfunctioning copy machine with an E053 error code, which is supposed to mean a problem in the 24-volt Interlock Power Supply. But you could chase the source of that 24-volt Interlock problem forever, and you'd never, ever find out what it is. If you're lucky enough, you'll eventually get an F066 error code, which indicates the true source of the malfunction-namely, a shorted dicorotron. Apparently, this is happening because the circuitry in the XER board has been changed to prevent the damage that would otherwise occur when a dicorotron shorted. Before the change in circuitry, a shorted dicorotron would have fried the whole XER board. Changing the circuitry has prevented damage to the XER board, but it's created a different issue. Now an E053 error message doesn't give you the true source of the machine's malfunction.
This story, paraphrased here, doesn't just describe the technician's accurate diagnosis of a problem; it also relates why things happened as they did. This makes the account, negative in tone and almost unintelligible to an outsider, both informative and interesting to its intended audience.
As I continued my investigation, one area of particular interest for me was the link between storytelling and leadership. I already knew from personal experience how stories could be used as a catalyst for action. And I had seen in several influential books-Leading Minds by Howard Gardner, The Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy, and The Story Factor by Annette Simmons-how stories could help leaders define their personality, boosting confidence in their integrity and providing some idea of how they might act in a given situation.
Excerpted from The Leader's Guide to Storytelling by Stephen Denning Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Stephen Denning is a private consultant specializing in knowledge management and organizational storytelling. His clients include GE, IBM, Shell, McDonald's, and the U.S. Army, among others. He is the author of the acclaimed books Squirrel Inc., from Jossey-Bass, and The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations.
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