Corporate Storytelling: the Wave or Particle Theory?


In school, teachers ask us to imagine that electricity is both a wave passing through material such as a copper wire, and the agitation of static copper particles within the wire.

When it comes to understanding the function of storytelling inside organisations, the same teaching could be helpful. No story works without a narrative, or basic carrier wave holding its sense. But as that story passes from mouth to mouth, so individuals become excited, just like those charged copper particles.

And just like electricity, the dual nature of storytelling can lead to shocks for those who misunderstand its power, or try to short-circuit one or other of its characteristics.

Inside large organisations, there’s plenty of confusion about labels. Is storytelling really a corporate communications discipline? Is it really about people management skills rather than content? Or does it fit best in the leadership development space inhabited by business coaches?

Practitioners who conceive storytelling solely as a corporate communications technique for passing on messages, are missing out on its power to excite and inspire employees.

Practitioners who see storytelling solely as another leadership competency or people management tool, fail to grasp the power of narrative in changing futures.

This certainly gives corporate storytelling professionals more doors to knock on. It also encourages us to define carefully what it is we do best, and in which of the corporate cloakrooms we should hang our hat.

Storytellers can get a hearing in the CorpComms department, with the HR people, and with the Leadership Development and Strategy folks.  Sometimes we must step carefully, as in some companies, professional mistrust and even outright antagonism exists between these different corporate functions.

But we can’t go far wrong in remembering corporate storytelling (sometimes known as organisational storytelling) serves twin functions as a communications discipline and a leadership method. Practitioners develop both hard and soft skills, and so training programs are tailored to both.

As an initial step, managers acquire experience in translating formal company information (strategic goals, challenges or market insights) into simple messages and stories that are easy to understand, easy to retain and above all relevant to the lives of employees and teams. Storytelling is a way of presenting company information to groups in lively, engaging ways that everyone can understand.

Next comes the second and more powerful step to storytelling. Its real power lies as much in the creation of emotional bonds with listeners, as with knowledge transfer. The practise of storytelling will raise the ability of managers to motivate employees and teams. In a world where employee satisfaction is rapidly taking the old place of engagement, understanding your boss and feeling he/she understands you, has real value in the HR-based world of people management.

Above all, stories are the best way to transmit values that, if distributed as a “formal Company values and vision statement” can seem dry, lifeless, and forgettable if remote from employees’ daily work – however long a task force has spent crafting them.

Managers increase their leadership profile by creating authentic links with their listeners. They do this by developing successful stories that draw on examples, personal anecdotes, or lateral associations that help listeners intuitively “make sense” of difficult ideas.

So instead of simply passing along or repeating management information, managers must first “make sense for themselves” of everything they present as a story to their teams. This “sensemaking” creates authenticity which in turn earns trust. In this respect, successful storytelling uses cognitive pathways similar to effective coaching techniques.

Storytelling is about stimulating the imagination to conceive other outcomes, other possibilities involving growth or change that might previously have seemed blocked. The changed mind-set is “we can do it here.”

The storyteller may focus not so much on the goals at hand, but how things will look once today’s goals have been achieved. This works in a similar fashion to the technique known as Appreciative Inquiry.

By presenting new perspectives or “alternative versions of the future”, a storyteller can encourage people to imagine bolder outcomes. Teams can get excited not just about today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s. The feedback that a really good storyteller gets from his audience can sound like an actors’ improvisation session.

The ability of managers to shape opinions and inspire changes in team behaviour – all through the agency of effective storytelling – is a desirable leadership attribute.

So storytelling develops the emotional intelligence of practitioners, but also strengthens culture inside the business unit. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that internal communications is today seen more and more of an HR discipline, rather than a branch of CorpComms.

For all these reasons, HR professionals would do well not to close the door on storytellers, or to wrongly typecast our discipline as typical of the externally-facing corporate communications function.

Of course, storytelling does help transfer vital information about the company’s development and processes in engaging ways, so the company gets win-win benefits.

Method: From Standard to Story

Effective communication and emotional authenticity are leadership skills innate to a lucky few. But with courage and some dedication, they are available to all through learning and practise. These are transferrable skills.

Changing minds and winning hearts through effective story is a fine goal or any leader. But no storyteller ever created new possibilities without first mastering the basics of communication.

For those raised in an MBA culture of “the facts speak for themselves” or the empirical engineering world where decisions are based on spreadsheet logic not emotion, there is generally a road to travel in terms of basic communication skills.

Furthermore, operational line managers are often less resistant to picking up “soft skills” when these are bundled together with more empirical, fact-based activity. Let’s be frank; classroom-based knowledge management or leadership training as a purely abstract process can generate eye-rolling and foot-dragging among busy managers in engineering–led cultures.

So, before we can unlock the “leadership step,” we must work on the “effective communication step.” This involves some attributes that even quite senior managers may take for granted, especially in hierarchical institutions or workplace cultures where power-distance is traditionally high. These include “showing up with the whole self,” “active listening,” and “experiencing the other.”

It would be a mistake to think storytelling takes place only on a conference stage or the intranet TV broadcast. The most effective communication will take place informally, in small group conversations, in performance appraisals, during travel etc.

Effective storytellers are used to receiving as much as transmitting, and are courageous about revealing themselves. They modestly acknowledge they don’t know the absolute truth. And a good storyteller knows that most of the time, he’s simply retelling a new version of a classic tale – with a business façade.

Above all, he knows that listeners have already been programmed since childhood with the plots and outcomes of great archetypal stories. Listeners have an unconscious expectation of how each story type should turn out – and they want to arrive at a satisfying, fully resolved conclusion. Some readers may have followed my earlier series of posts about the Seven Basic Plots, recently concluded with an analysis of entrepreneurship.

In business as in life-stories, barriers to change are largely self-created. Overcoming such obstacles to reach a new stage of evolution or personal development is the business of story – and the business of business too. Encouraging teams to dig deep for hidden strengths within themselves, to glimpse their work in more fulfilling, perhaps even heroic terms, is the leader’s application of story principles to business challenges.

In technical terms, we need to test and as necessary develop the skill of simplifying and synthesizing messages into memorable ‘informative gifts’ backed by relevant examples or case studies that resonate personally because they are lived, not abstract.

The storytelling programme starts with a focus on verbal and non-verbal communications skills, and the selection of anecdotes to enrich meaning and create empathy. We use feedback, discussion and analysis to show what worked, and what didn’t.

The next step is to assess the ability of delegates to translate “standards into stories.” At some stage, just about every manager has to use the Balanced ScoreCard to assess standards and achievements with teams. Leaders need to communicate multiple levels of BSC results: Company wide, divisionally, for teams and units.

The BSC has its “hard” side for fitness, finance and client relations, where examples tend to be more formal. Storytelling skills are especially relevant for the “soft” side of the BSC disc — culture, societal contribution, evolution. These aspects of BSC need to be told in ways that are relevant and meaningful, rather than jargon-based.

We then progress to practising the telling of more ambitious stories of transformation. The objective is always to help managers communicate the message of “making more possible” to employees. The primary task is always to mobilise energy here and now.

Outcomes: Stories for Higher Leadership

In terms of developing leadership styles, the storytelling principle is designed to expose managers to more intuitive approaches. These are associated with the higher consciousness levels described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its subsequent evolution by the knowledge management profession, notably the Barrett Seven Levels of Consciousness model from the Values Centre.

Much daily management activity takes place at the three levels occupying the bottom of the pyramid: managing adversity or crisis; taking control; pursuing profit in Level One. Next up in Level Two managers must also develop relationships that support corporate needs – communicating with suppliers and employees. Level Three addresses productivity, best practice and self-esteem through quality.

So far, managers have little need of stories or inspiration to deliver effective results and meet targets. A staff memo will do the job. But reaching and going past the Transformation stage at Level Four calls for a new recipe. The four levels at the top end of the hierarchy of leadership competencies, call for strengthened interpersonal approach where storytelling comes into its own as a management tool.

To build teams and achieve continuous renewal by promoting learning and innovation, the Level Four manager needs to become an influencer, not a driver.  At Level Five, the manager must adopt the role of inspirer or integrator in order to nurture a positive team culture and ensure true sharing of vision and values.

Higher still, the Level Six manager becomes a mentor or partner, fostering alliances in the community, focused on employee fulfilment, and active in environmental stewardship. Finally, the “good-to-great” manager’s Level Seven leadership style builds in the concept of service, and long-term perspectives we associate with wisdom.

All these “higher” management functions are based upon personal example and a “teach by doing and telling” function. Storytelling cannot provide the functions or competencies themselves. But it does provide the managers informal teaching style to show and tell how those competencies are exercised in the workplace.

This explains why storytelling is a hybrid discipline whose practitioners may find themselves hanging their hats in multiple cloakrooms.

It is of the CorpComms world and is a way to simplify, filter and channel information in memorable ways that actually stick.

It is of the HR world and serves as a management tool to increase employee satisfaction (or employee engagement, for those still measuring it) and workers’ sense of being “on the bus”.

It is of the leadership world and provides executives with the means to bring their “whole selves” to bear in inspiring others and creating new shared futures.

In the end, of course, storytelling is a primal force, like electricity. It can bring light, power – and some much needed shocks to the system.

Richard House

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One thought on “Corporate Storytelling: the Wave or Particle Theory?

  1. Awesome! Thank you. This is very validating as I’m building a “full” process around Strategic Story. It all begins with a Strategic Story Retreat where participants ‘get used’ to two things: The power of story and the fact that we are each already storytellers.

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