Issue 17: In This Issue:

  • The Leader's Guide to Storytelling
  • Storytelling in Organizations

The Leader's Guide to Storytelling 
(Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative)

By Stephen Denning 

Want to increase productivity? Lead your organization through a change? Increase loyalty and commitment? Achieve some new management goal? ... Then you better learn how to tell stories.

Not convinced? Then here's a statistic for you. Stephen Denning, inThe Leader's Guide to Storytelling, relates the results of a recent study that explored the experience of some forty companies involved in a major change project initiated by senior management at each company.

The projects ranged from implementing a Six Sigma program to optimizing business processes to adopting a new sales strategy and involved a range of organizations that included banks, hospitals, manufacturers and utilities. All programs had the potential for large economic impact on the organization and all required major company-wide changes in behaviour, tasks and processes.

The results? Fully 58 percent of the companies failed to meet their targets and the overall differences between the successful projects and the failures was huge. The successful 42 percent of companies not only gained the expected returns, in some instances they exceeded them by as much as 200-300 percent. The study found a high correlation between 12 primary factors, one of which was the ability to tell a simple, clear and compelling story, and the outcome of the projects. Without a story-telling capacity, the chances of success were significantly lower.

A Skill You Already Have

Before you start doubting your skills as an author or questioning the realism of a career as a writer, Denning points out that learning to tell stories is not so much a task of learning something as it is reminding ourselves of something we already know how to do. It's a matter of transposing the skills we apply effortlessly in a social situation to formal settings with some forethought and discipline.

Everyone knows that an example makes something easier to understand and easier to remember. And the use of stories as a learning and teaching process has been around for more than a decade. The power of storytelling as a leadership tool can be seen in leadership books as far back as 1996 when 'Leading Minds' by Howard Gardner was published.

Practical Tools for Enhancing Your Skills

Yet, for most people, the concept of telling a story in order to accomplish a leadership objective seems out of their skill repertoire. But that is what makes The Leader's Guide to Storytelling such a brilliant and indispensable reference work. In it, Denning not only shows that everyone has the ability to tell stories, but provides leaders at whatever level in the organization with usable tools for communication, focuses on what works and conveys enough theoretical background to give you an understanding of why some stories work for some purposes but not for others.

Failure of the Logical Argument

To ground the reader and convey the concept of a 'narrative' or 'story' in a business setting, Denning opens the first chapter with none other than a story. In the mid-1990's Denning was placed in charge of the World Bank's initiative in knowledge management -which was a strange notion in the organization at that time. Not surprisingly getting the individuals throughout the organization, even top management, behind the initiative was a monumental task. He offered people cogent, logical, analytical arguments about the need to gather the knowledge scattered throughout the organization. They didn't listen. He gave PowerPoint presentations that compellingly demonstrated the value of sharing and leveraging the bank's know-how. His audiences merely looked dazed.

The Power of a Story

Then in 1996 he began to tell the following 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 question about 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."

The Turning Point

This simple story proved the turning point. It helped World Bank staff and managers envision a different kind of future for the organization. When knowledge management later became an official corporate priority, Denning used similar stories to help maintain the momentum.

As an interesting footnote, Denning describes the reaction that he received from J.G. " Paw-Paw" Pinkerton, a master story teller at the International Storytelling Center, when Denning related the Zambia story to him. Pinkerton said he didn't hear a story at all. There was no real "telling". There was no plot. There was no buildup of characters. Denning's anecdote, he said was a pathetic thing, not a story at all.

A Business Narrative

But if Denning had created a story under Pinkerton's guidelines, it would not have worked for a great many reasons - all of which are central to the principles Denning outlines in the book. So it becomes clear that Denning is not speaking of 'story' as we normally think of stories we read for entertainment. And this may be why Denning uses the term 'Business Narrative' in the subtitle for his book.

Denning points out there are two components to the process:

  • Knowing the right story to tell
  • Telling the story right

A Storytelling Catalog

To help you decide what the right story to tell is, Denning provides a 'storytelling catalog' or eight different narrative patterns designed for different aims:

  • Sparking action
  • Communicating who you are
  • Communicating who the company is - branding
  • Transmitting values
  • Fostering collaboration
  • Taming the grapevine
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Leading people into the future

1. Sparking Action

Leadership is, above all, about getting people to change. To achieve this goal, you need to communicate the complex nature of the changes required and inspire an often skeptical organization to enthusiastically carry out them out. This is the place for what Denning calls a "springboard story", one that enables listeners to visualize the large scale transformation needed in the circumstances and then to act on that realization.

2. Communicating Who You Are

You aren't likely to lead people through wrenching change if they don't trust you. And if they're to trust you, they have to know you: who you are, where you've come from, and why you hold the views that you do. Ideally they'll end up not only understanding you but also empathizing with you. Stories for this purpose are usually based on a life event that reveals some strength or vulnerability and shows what the speaker took from the experience.

3. Communicating Who the Company Is - Branding

Just as individuals need trust if they are to lead, so companies need trust if their products and services are to succeed in the marketplace. For customers to trust a company and its products, they have to know what sort of company they are dealing with, what kinds of values it espouses, and how its people approach meeting customer's needs. Strong brands are based on a narrative - a promise that the company makes to the customer, a promise the company must keep.

4. Transmitting Values

Stories can be effective tools for ingraining values within an organization, particularly those that help forestall future problems by clearly establishing limits on destructive behaviour. These narratives often take the form of a parable.

5. Fostering collaboration

One approach to getting people to work together is to generate a common narrative around a group's concerns and goals, beginning with a story told by one member of the group. Ideally, that first story sparks another, which sparks another. If the process continues, group members develop a shared perspective, one that enables a sense of community to emerge naturally.

6. Taming the Grapevine

Any business leader knows that the grapevine can at its best be a distraction and at its worst be destructive. One effective response is to harness the energy of the grapevine to defuse a rumour, using a story to convince listeners that the gossip is either untrue or unreasonable. This kind of story highlights the incongruity between the rumour and reality.

7. Sharing Knowledge

Knowledge sharing narratives are unusual in that they lack a hero or even a detectable plot. They are more about problems, and how and why they got - or didn't get - resolved. They include a description of the problem, the setting, the solution and the explanation. Because they highlight a problem, they tend to have a negative tone. And because they focus in detail on why a particular solution worked, they may be of little interest outside a defined group of people.

8. Leading People into the Future

A story can help take listeners from where they are now to where they need to be, by getting them familiar and comfortable with the future in their minds. The problem, of course, lies in crafting a credible narrative about the future when the future is unknowable. Thus, if such stories are to serve their purpose, they should whet listeners' imaginative appetite about the future without providing detail likely to prove inaccurate.

Denning devotes a chapter to each of these eight types of narratives and then spends the final two chapters of the book showing you how to put it all together, become an interactive leader and use the techniques to achieve transformational innovation.

Telling the Story Right

To help you actually tell the story, Denning devotes a chapter to four key elements of storytelling performance:

  • Style
  • Truth
  • Preparation
  • Delivery

Denning has done a great job of demonstrating the importance of storytelling for leaders as well as a laying out the path for us to follow to achieve this critical competence. He does, however, point out that storytelling is a performance art and that it will take effort and practice in order to master.

The Sixth Discipline?

In the introduction to the book, he says that after reading Peter Senge's 'Fifth Discipline', in which Senge hints at a sixth discipline, he wonders if storytelling might not be this missing sixth discipline. Certainly, it has the characteristics that Senge envisaged for a discipline: that is, something "where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together". And it has to do with "who we think, what we truly want and how we interact and learn with one another".

An Excellent Reference Work

In any case, any leader that wants to stay on top of the game would be well advised to invest some time and effort in this excellent work.

To purchase 'The Leaders Guide to Storytelling' click this link to get it from: 

Storytelling In Organizations

By John Seely Brown; Stephen Denning; Katalina Groh; Larry Prusak 

In 2005 Stephen Denning published 'The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative' (see review in this newsletter).But the case for storytelling has been building for quite some time.

In 2001, a symposium on storytelling was held at the Smithsonian and the book 'Storytelling in Organizations', published in 2004, is an outgrowth of four presentations made at that symposium by Brown, Denning, Groh and Prusak.

Stories as Change Agent

In this book, Denning talks about how stories that change organizations work.

Denning relates that when he tells the 'Madagascar story', he says, "Let me tell you something that happened to our task team in Madagascar, and they got advice from someone working in Indonesia, and the Moscow office, and the professor in Toronto, and the retired staff member, and all this came back to Madagascar, and what we learned from the experience went into the knowledge base in Washington."

When he says all that, the listeners are physically stationary, sitting in a chair in Washington, DC. But if they have been following the story, in their minds they have been whizzing around the world and back in about 15 seconds.

Getting Inside The Idea

With a story, listeners get inside the idea. They live the idea. They feel the idea as much as if they were the task team there in Madagascar, not knowing what to do about some urgent but obscure question and then almost miraculously getting the answer so rapidly. They experience the story as if they had lived it themselves. In the process, the story, and the idea that resides inside it, can become theirs.

It's quite unlike experiencing an abstract explanation of a complex concept. It's different from experiencing it as an external observer, standing back like a scientist in a white coat and appraising the experience, or like some kind of voyeur or as a critic, as a participant, someone who is actually living and experiencing feeling the story.

The Limitations of Stories

Denning's team at the World Bank thought that if one story is good, many stories must be even better. So they recruited a couple of people, and put together 25 wonderful stories. Then they put them in a booklet and put them in newsletters and distributed them all over the organization

What was the result? As far as Denning's team could tell, they had absolutely no impact. No excitement. No interest. No sign of any new activity. No discernible impact on the organization at all.

'Storytelling' is the Key

But Denning observes that if you are telling someone a story, face to face, eyeball to eyeball, it's you and the other person interacting; and then something quite different is going on. The listeners can see you and feel you and listen to you and can tell if you really mean what you are saying.

They may or may not end up believing you, but at least they can tell if it's authentic. And so they found that it was oral storytelling that in fact had the large impact, not putting stories in the booklets and videos. They discovered that it wasn't story that was having an impact, but storytelling.

A Pattern That Works

Denning notes that the stories that worked for him in order to spring listeners to a new level of understanding had a very similar pattern. First of all they had to be understandable to the audience that hears them. And the story needs to be told from the perspective of a single protagonist, a single individual who is in a situation that is typical of that organization.

For the World Bank, the typical predicament is someone in operations who is in an out-of-the-way part of the world and desperately needs the answer to a problem. If it is an oil company it would be an oil driller. If it is a sales organization, it would be salesman. Someone whom everyone in that organization can instantly understand, empathize with, resonate with their dilemma, and understand what that person is going through.

Plausible and Recent

The story also needs to have a certain strangeness or incongruity. It needs to be somewhat odd but also plausible: "That's remarkable that you could get an answer to a question like that in such a short timeframe-- within 48 hours, even though you're in Madagascar. But it's plausible. It could have happened. The tax administration community exists; E-mail exists. The Web exists. Yes, indeed, this could have happened in the way that the story is being told."

And the story should be as recent as possible. "This happened last week" conveys a sense of urgency. Older stories can also work, but fresh is better.

The Storyteller Must Believe

For the story to have the springboard effect, it has to be performed with feeling. It has to be performed with passion. The storyteller must tell the story as though she had actually lived the experience herself.

This is because what is rubbing off on the listeners is not just the intellectual content of the story: it is the feeling in the story that is communicated to the listener. It is the emotion that makes the connection between the storyteller and the listener.

This is what catches the listeners' attention, and gives the story its "spring" and pushes the listeners to reinvent a new story in their own contexts, and fill in the gaps to make it happen.

The Marriage of Narrative and Analysis

Denning stresses that it is important to keep in mind that storytelling is not a panacea. He is not saying to forget about analysis of costs and benefits and risks and timelines and all the structural things that you will need to do to implement a complex idea in a large organization.

What he is saying is: do all the analysis, but use the narrative to get people inside the idea, so that they live the idea, so that they feel the idea, so that they understand how the idea might work. And once they are inside the idea, and once they have felt it and understood it, then you can move on and share the analysis with them.

'Storytelling in Organizations' is another useful reference work to help you leverage this skill in your organization.

To purchase 'Storytelling in Organizations' click this link to get it from: