By Karen Morris
”A C.I.O., a comedian and a priest walk into a bar.” We want to know what happens next.
You know how a child’s face responds to, “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago.” A congregation calms to the phrase “We are gathered here together to celebrate…”
Unforgivable and unforgiving 54 slide Power Points™, and their spreadsheet off-spring, are a whole different story. Awash with data, riddled with ostensible facts, our corporate communication conventions seem to forget what they are for: above all, they are for the audience. Obvious? Unfortunately, many presenters “forget” the audience in favor of the “message”. The result is that the audience forgets the message. Worse is the presenter who forgets the audience in favor of themselves; the listeners left to languish in some passive, receptive state. An actor who did this would be fast out of business but we do it in business.
Gary Lyons, a former actor, director and playwright has been tackling this problem for several decades as an executive coach at The TAI Group. The art and science of developing compelling presentations begins, according to Gary with telling a story. Good story-telling taps the imagination of the listener; they become active participants in the narrative and are connected to the outcome.
Some of my rather left brain sourcing colleagues will protest that this is not the appropriate language of business. But the language of business is – must be – the language of people making meaningful connections. This is indeed the business of narrative. Narrative is neither new nor trivial. Human history reveals storytelling as the glue of communities, societies and civilizations. Narrative cements cultures, transfers knowledge and values, teaches, entertains and motivates. What company would not welcome such benefits? What destination country or region would not want to tell its unique story by these means?
If your commercial discourse blends reason and emotion, captures and holds attention, inspires action and enables change, what you have achieved is the language of leadership. This applies whether you represent the buy-side, vendors, advisors, regions or countries.
At its best, storytelling is the human portal to empathy and insight. Insight comes from looking at the same stuff as your competitors and seeing something else, making different connections. Insight is the indispensable cornerstone of all innovation, arguably the only remaining source of competitive advantage.
So what on earth, or more precisely, what in the office, happened?
People have not changed. We all “story our lives” by text, tweet, blog or over a coffee. We are wired to share what we did, what we are doing and what we want to do next. It is no different for an enterprise and its members talking to internal and external stakeholders.
But somehow we get the sense, to corrupt Othello’s dying words that we are more communicated against than communicating.
Maybe the tyranny of ubiquitous data causes us to lose the larger narrative plot. Rich data and smart analytics are invaluable. But data, almost always incomplete and perishable, start rather than complete stories. I remember an early conversation about sourcing sometime in the last century. My interlocutor built vertiginous towers of BPO-speak, metrics and KPIs, cost arbitrage, SLA’s and so forth. But after the barrage of verbiage and statistics, I realized I had no sense at all of what his organization was about. I had no mental pictures. I do not imply that we should not value facts and so-called “hard” data in business but that our brains and memory respond so much more powerfully to facts linked to imagery and connected cohesively to a context.
The storied, rather than data-delineated, approach necessarily moves us along the continuum from data to information, from information to knowledge, from knowledge to understanding, and from understanding to insight where actionable competitive advantage resides. Of course this states the obvious but it is not obvious how to do it. (In my experience the obvious is often the hardest stuff to pull off). Any innovation strategy that stops short along the continuum is missing its full potential, the really “Happy Ending”.
The meat of organizational narrative capability is in how we set about the business of getting critical insights from “mind to market”. “How” incorporates disciplining, the “what” of content and the ‘why’ of communicating it.
Imagine a week in which every communication, presentation or meeting-content in which you participate meet the Heath brothers’ “stories that stick” test.
- SIMPLE: focused on the essential core of the idea
- UNEXPECTED: attention grabbing
- CONCRETE: clear and meaningful
- CREDIBLE: trustworthy and believable
- EMOTIONAL: harnessing appropriate emotion
A story that in Malcolm Gladwell’s term “The Tipping Point”2 has the “stickiness factor.”
Imagine if every week were like that! Imagine what would get done. We would conserve and maximize the scarcest of corporate resources: time and attention.
The impact on internal and external brand identity could be transformational.
What would this level of communication do for culture? For stories to stick in a culture they have to both be co-created and be continued by intelligent improvisation. That requires constant active listening, an enviable organizational attribute.
Consider how this would impact the effectiveness of one-to-one and mass communication, and engender that precious commodity, trust.
If this picture is not deliriously idyllic enough, the narrative approach as a platform for customer-centric strategies enables empathetic design and deep customer insight, proven differentiators. 3
These corporate capabilities are not fiction. They are being actively and explicitly implemented organizations as diverse as Pixar, General Electric, the U.S. Department of Defense, IBM, Hallmark Cards and the Center for Disease Control.
It is hard- to achieve “Made to Stick” standards — a lot of thought has to precede the talk. “Storytelling” as a strategic asset remains the domain of cutting edge companies. However, this is changing fast as more and more business leaders and investors understand the business returns. And the benefits are amplified in the multi-cultural terrain of global sourcing where the value of sustainable, relationship-based partnerships outstrips the commoditized transactional approach.
Good strategic narrative augment brand values and not just in young and trendy segments but across industrial spectra from financial services to consumer goods, engineering, luxury goods, entertainment and healthcare. Indeed there’s an impressive plethora of techniques and tools in play. Many are already established practice such as storyboarding; experience mapping; idea-generation narratives, hypothetical scenario planning; ethnography and more.
We associate stories with friendship, family and ritual.
Let’s be clear about the story for business here. Strategic narrative is more than great presentation skills and new communication technologies. It is looking freshly at how a community of service – which all organizations are – informs, nourishes and inspires that community to action. It is bringing the story to life. Vision to execution.
“A CIO, a priest and a comedian walk into a bar….”
What will your story be? □
 Heath, Chip and Heath, Dan. Made To Stick (New York: Random House, 2007).
2 Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point (US: Little Brown, 2000).
3 Martin, Roger. Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business School Press, 2009).
Karen A. Morris is Strategic Advisor to the W.R. Berkley group of insurance companies. Formerly Chief Innovation Officer of Chartis Insurance, one of the world’s largest general insurance companies, Karen specializes in all aspects of innovation strategy and execution. She has over 25 years’ experience in law, management, underwriting and multinational business. This rich and diverse international background inspires her insight on product, service and business model innovation. She is a frequent speaker and writer on innovation and leadership at global forums and conferences around the world. Karen is co-founder and President of The Institute for Insurance Innovation launching in 2012. Karen is also an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York teaching Innovation as part of the MBA program. She has spoken on innovation at the world’s foremost executive MBA program. You may contact Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org.