The Importance of Narrative

By BlessingWhite, a Division of GP Strategies

Before the iPhone and email and DVDs and e-readers, when the working day was done our ancestors used to gather together around the fire and tell stories. They told of the adventures of the day, of their experiences and struggles. They shared ancient tales of wisdom and learning and folklore. Through the stories they made sense of their lives, created a shared sense of purpose and educated one another about their history and their destiny.

These days, our storytelling methodologies have become more sophisticated and the community that we can share them with is now a global one. We are no longer limited to the faces joining us by the flickering fire. Instead, we can broadcast our knowledge, experience and perspective around the world, instantly, with the same message being shared and heard in Singapore, Russia, Brazil, Sweden and Ireland simultaneously. We can use video conferencing, email, blogging, the range of social media, etc.

And yet the power of the story remains. We tell stories to our children to engage and entertain them but also to help them learn about the world around them. We tell stories to our friends on the golf course and in the pub as a way to regale them about our life and experiences. And we tell stories at work as way to reinforce the culture or as cautionary tales or as ways to help people understand what is expected. Stories are a powerful and compelling way to transfer knowledge and information in a memorable way.

Even as adults, we are transported into an alternative frame of mind through the experience of listening to a story. Stories provide meaning, and these tales and anecdotes help us to connect to the bigger picture.

The Power of the Story

At a recent workshop for 200 senior managers in a biopharma firm, we were exploring practical tools for career coaching conversations. As part of the programme, we asked three senior leaders in the business to share the story of their own career journeys. The Managing Director of the team shared an experience where he took a leap into the unknown and life took an unexpected turn that ultimately resulted in him taking his current role. The quality of attention in the room was impressive – his ‘how I got here’ story provided an insight into who he was as a person and what he believed in, and it created an environment of openness and receptivity. In addition the content of the story demonstrated his openness to growth and understanding through taking a risk, something he had learned from his own path taking lots of twists and turns.

At BlessingWhite we work with senior leaders to help them know and show who they are in a way that builds trust and expands their credibility, while allowing their direct reports to be inspired and engaged by them.

During periods of change and evolution, stories can be a powerful tool to help individuals within the business to adapt. In Leading Out Loud, our leadership development workshop based on the work of Terry Pearce, we support leaders to articulate the what, the why and the how – sharing their vision in empowering and exciting ways, using the power of metaphor to engage their audience. In addition, we teach them to overcome resistance by acknowledging the challenges, the opposite view, the effort it will take and the detail that will be involved in delivering on the vision – so colleagues are not left to determine how policy will work in practice.

Stories – about where we have been, of the battles, of the highs and lows, of the journey to the present day – help leaders to set a powerful context for the reasons behind a change in process, practice or personnel. In addition, they set a firm foundation for building a compelling vision for the future.

Tell Your Own Story

When people have sight of the goal on the horizon and the challenges they will face to get there, they become more able to devise strategies and plans and take positive action to move the organisation forward. Our research around engagement has shown that the clearer this line of sight the more effective individuals are. The more your audience understands about the story of the business and the role they play in creating an upbeat ending to the tale, the more committed they are to making a difference.

If an opportunity is coming up for you to tell a story to make a point rather than just recite facts and data, here are some tips for you, as leaders, to bring your tale to life.

1. Be authentic. Standing in front of an audience and speaking from the heart can be daunting enough without also putting up a front. In order to win hearts and minds, leaders need to be vulnerable, authentic and truthful. In Leading Out Loud, we explore with our clients how to share values and beliefs in empowering and engaging ways.

2. Use a compelling metaphor. Metaphors can help your listeners bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. It provides an image that people can see. As you think through the metaphor, it should be clear who the listeners are in the metaphor and who you are in the metaphor. The metaphor does not need to be elaborate to be effective. Organised crime, budget deficits and runaway costs are often referred to as ‘infectious diseases’ or ‘cancers.’ Change is often referred to as ‘the tide’ or ‘the wind,’ indicating a force beyond the listeners’ control but one within their power to use for their own purposes.

3. Acknowledge the ‘counter’ view. Not everyone will share the same view about the world as you do. They may not agree with your reasoning, your perspective or the conclusions you have drawn about the appropriate course of action. A powerful response to this can be to acknowledge these concerns and anxieties. Take the time in your preparation to listen to the business and the counter views and to articulate your thinking, or as we call it to ‘show the math.’

4. Respect and know your audience. Joseph Campbell defined the purpose of myths as “a way to make sense of life in the world and establish a shared set of rights and wrongs.” Great leaders create a shared sense of belonging while also working to align their community behind certain core truths and principles. These may be old ideas that they want to reinforce or new ideas that require a complete ‘rewrite’ of the current context. When you tell your tale, be sure to give some thought to the needs of the audience to understand the context and their part in it.

Our lives follow their own story. They help us to define who we are and why we are that way. Stories explore the possibility of where we can take ourselves and our organisations with a little imagination and a significant effort. Your way of editing the story of your business and its goals for the future makes you the editor, author and storyteller all at once.

About the Authors

Joe Meyler

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