To captivate staff, executives must be master storytellers
By HARVEY SCHACHTER Wednesday, September 14, 2005 in the Globe & Mail (Canada)
The Leader's Guide To Storytelling By Stephen Denning Jossey-Bass, 360 pages, $31.99
Executives hear much these days about storytelling. In addition to all their other skills, they are expected to be master storytellers, pushing their agenda by reaching beyond fact-based argument to touch the emotions and captivate staff through narrative. But many are no doubt puzzled and therefore paralyzed.
What exactly is a story? How do you prepare it, and just as importantly, tell it in a powerful manner? Traditionally, a story involves a hero or heroine, a plot, a turning point, and a resolution.
But Stephen Denning, a former World Bank official who became enchanted with the power of storytelling and now helps organizations take advantage of it, says different narrative patterns are useful for different purposes of leadership, and they need not be as elaborate as the classic formula.
Indeed, his favourite -- the springboard story -- is quite spare, lacking a plot and turning point. But it's vital for leaders, communicating the complexities of change in a way that motivates others to action. A springboard story tells how one person typical of the audience carried out some recent change that improved the organization. It explains what would have happened without the change. The story has a happy ending, and the teller closes with a link to the purpose he or she hopes to achieve: how this example can springboard the audience and organization to a better future.
Mr. Denning outlines seven other types of storytelling you can use:
Communicating who you are: This is a colourful, well-told story, usually based on an incident in your life, which reveals some strength or vulnerability and helps others to understand you better. In some cases, the story may be from somebody else's life -- a hero of yours, for example -- but because you consider it significant it shows others what you value.
Communicating who the company is: These are the stories told about the company and its products, to develop trust and establish a brand.
Transmitting values: These parables describe an incident that exemplifies the values you want listeners to follow -- perhaps how one employee went beyond the call of duty to serve a customer. You don't begin by specifically naming the value or end by telling listeners to abide by that value, but instead reflect on what the story means to you.
Fostering collaboration: There are a variety of approaches possible here to help people work together, from tales about the past highlighting collaboration, to stories about the glorious future that will occur through the work of a task force, to the personal stories members of a new team share at their first meeting to build bonds.
Taming the grapevine: If dangerous rumours are escalating, you use a story -- often humorous -- to defuse the gossip. But Mr. Denning warns you can't be mean-spirited and can't ridicule a rumour or bad news that is true.
Sharing knowledge: These stories explain something that has gone wrong and how it was -- or wasn't -- fixed.
Leading people into the future: These share your vision of the future in a compelling way. While the springboard story tells about something in the past that can be extrapolated into the future, this is an invented, often quite vague, but evocative story of the future, like Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It requires a high degree of verbal skill that not all leaders possess. Mr. Denning explains in detail how to craft each story, and provides a template for building your own stories in each category. If you're confused but intrigued about storytelling, the book can certainly point you in the right direction.
Also reviewed in the notice: Seth Godin's "All Marketers Are Liars" and Don Watson's "Death Sentences."
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