Storytelling is often seen as a communication tool to be used by leaders to influence an audience. But some of the most powerful applications of strategic storytelling involve groups of people from all levels and disciplines sharing their stories and linking these to a higher strategic narrative. Global organisations such as the charity Oxfam, New Look - the fashion retailer, TUI - the travel company, GSK - the pharmaceutical giant and BAE Systems - the defence and engineering business, have all developed meaning and purpose for their people by encouraging people to tell their stories to each other.
There is a danger of creating too much mystique around storytelling by over-complicating it and worrying too much about developing story structure and metaphor. Too much emphasis on developing storytelling skills loses the authenticity that comes from people simply talking from the heart. Most people if asked when they have felt engaged at work or when they have felt connected to an organisation’s purpose, will tell a story. People do not need to be great raconteurs to do this. If the story is honest, matters to the storyteller and is relevant it will resonate with others.
For example, Oxfam GB has a narrative for its people to tell others about what Oxfam stands for and what it does. But the organisation struggled to take this narrative, despite powerful imagery and compelling anecdotes, off the page and into deeper conversations and exchanges that helped people connect in a more meaningful way.
To overcome this a design team started telling each other stories about why they had joined Oxfam and what mattered to them. In this “First Conversation” they realized how important their personal stories were and how it helped them relate to each other. They developed a picture that captured the history of the organisation showing Oxfam as a global movement of millions of people who share the belief that, in a world rich in resources, poverty isn't inevitable. This became “the Story of Us” and acted as a prompt for colleagues to share their stories.
The picture to prompt conversations about what inspires you to work for Oxfam
The design team then took this picture and helped to lead conversations with groups of Oxfam people asking simple questions such as:
How does your work contribute to our purpose?
What inspires you or makes you proud about Oxfam?
What do you most look forward to in a world without poverty?
Over the course of these conversations the percent of people agreeing that they experienced a strong sense of shared purpose within Oxfam doubled. One of their conversation leaders commented:
“Feelings are not tangible, but I know that in the sessions that I ran, people left feeling good and empowered and wanted to do more. I had laughter, tears and real pride in the room.”
One of the participants – one of the “storytellers” – said:
“We always talk about how we're a movement of people working towards the eradication of poverty together, but sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day tasks and occasional politics that it is easy to forget how cohesive a movement we actually are.”
The experiences of Oxfam provide a useful balance to the emphasis that often gets placed on developing the storytelling skills of leaders. It suggests that strategic storytelling needs to focus just as much if not more on harnessing our natural storytelling skills, and that this can be used to help provide purpose and meaning to people at work. Sharing real stories about “why I work here” and how I see my job fitting in the context of a bigger picture can be a way for people to co-create meaning that grows emergently from the conversations people have with each other.
This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, because the need for companies to improve the way they share meaning and purpose is growing. Gallup, one of the organisations at the forefront of employee engagement measurement over the last 20 years, analysed the views of Milennials (20 – 36 year olds; born 1980 – 1996). Exploring what people want from work, Gallup identified six major shifts foremost of which is away from a focus on reward towards a focus on Purpose:
“Milennials don’t just work for a paycheck – they want a purpose. For milennials work must have meaning. They want to work for organizations with mission and purpose.”
The importance of Purpose as a force for alignment and engagement was acknowledged by the Engaging for Success (MacLeod) Report, commissioned by the UK Secretary of State for Business in 2008. The first core enabler identified by the MacLeod Report is the existence of a strong strategic narrative:
LEADERSHIP provides a strong strategic narrative, which has widespread ownership and commitment from managers and employees at all levels. The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose.
Engaging for Success; the MacLeod Report to Government 2009
Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” (filmed in September 2009) remains amongst the top viewed Ted Talks (over 28m in 2016). His subsequent book “Start with Why” outlines the argument that purpose driven leaders and companies inspire others to action.
Secondly, stories are one of the most important approaches we have for communicating with each other in order to understand each other’s perspectives. Presentations, lists, bullet points and logical argumentation are great but provoke the natural critic in all of us. We tend to look for the flaws in the point of view presented to us. With stories, however, different parts of our brains process the information. Rather the look for flaws in arguments we are more likely to respond to the emotions and the experiences we hear. We engage in the story. Stories help us to see the world from the perspective of other people. More parts of our brain are activated when we hear a story and we experience the world the story teller is trying to convey. We are not very good at distinguishing truth from fiction (hence our emotional responses to stories conveyed in film or in books) but we do engage in a vibrant and vivid way and our “resistance” falls as we are invited into the story teller’s world, providing a more memorable and influential experience.
To harness strategic storytelling in this way does not require working for a global charity fighting poverty. New Look the fashion retailer is encouraging its people to tell stories about how they make customers feel better about themselves, while TUI the travel company encouraged its people to talk about how they made travel experiences special for their customers. At TUI understanding of business purpose went from 20% knowing one of the major goals to 50% of employees being able to recall unprompted all key objectives.
In conclusion, strategic storytelling can be used to help people connect with organisational purpose and meaning. However, rather than try and achieve this by depending upon a small group of leaders transmitting their version of the narrative, a more effective approach can be to involve everyone, inviting them to talk about what the bigger picture means to them and creating shared purpose and meaning that emerges in conversations throughout the business.