Stories are how we make sense of the world. They also stir our emotions in powerful ways, often persuading our audience more effectively than any reasoned argument. If we’re trying to inspire change, we should use them. This three-part series explores how.
I sometimes imagine the first humans with conscious thought, looking across the African savannah, gazing at the infinity of the night cosmos above. When did they start asking the eternal questions: ‘Who am I? Why am I here? What’s going to happen when I die?’ What stories did they tell themselves?
Stories are what make us different as a species. I can hardly imagine animals thinking they are not satisfied with their lot. Do lions bemoan their ‘lion-ness’, aching to try something different for a while? Can they transport themselves into an alternative point of view? Do they have any knowledge of what is good and evil? What do they think about living and dying? What do we think, when our thoughts turn to the inevitable?
Read the book of Genesis and you get one story of how the world began. Listen to the scientists talk about the Big Bang and Darwin’s theory of evolution and you get some others. Science itself is still only a story—an imperfect model of reality. It was only a little under 100 years ago that the awe-inspiring idea was born that the creation of all the known universe emerged from the nothingness of the singularity. Now there’s a story—something arising from nothing.
Our senses don’t equip us to perceive the fullness of reality. Stories help us understand the world around us and our journeys within it. They have driven emperors and kings—and the people who overthrew them—echoing down the ages long after the civilisations they inspired turned to dust. Unlike the other animals, we can sacrifice this moment’s gratification for a larger prize down the road. They cause us to dream about horizons beyond our grasp.
As my favourite writer, Joseph Campbell, put it, ‘Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.’ At the risk of labouring the metaphor, the truth is we can be the hero of that movie, and author the script. Even in the most desperate of situations, as Victor Frankl discovered, no one can rob us of our ultimate freedom—the choice of our response to any circumstance. It turns out we have agency in how the movie turns out.
I can’t imagine a circumstance where our storytelling doesn’t act as the compass of our lives. It can point to an affirming idea and help overcome obstacles on the way to the goal. Conversely, when the voice of judgement gets a say, we may create a negative story that puts imaginary obstacles in our way. Hamlet told us ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. If that’s true, then what we think has consequence, and the way we think is in stories.
We should be intentional about the use of stories in our business settings. My communications director uses the simple model above to show the core benefits of stories: to understand, to connect and to inspire. He notes they are not mutually exclusive, either; a good story can do all three.
I often run workshops where I teach the methods and tools of the Theory of Constraints. While it’s important to know your technical chops, it adds so much to understanding and learning when these new ideas are grounded in a good story. There’s a human connection made when you relate what happened in that other situation—the one that’s like their own, but not the same. The imagination steps in to fill the gaps as the story’s lessons are drawn out from the specifics of my story to the general principle, and then back into the specifics of their situation.
A good story inspires when those learning hear how people, just like them, wrestled with the particulars of their situation, overcame obstacles on the path, and courageously willed themselves to succeed. The story they tell is that if those others can do it, then why not us? If not now, when? And, the story creates the connective tissue which defines ‘us’.
Ed Schein, a doyen of organisational culture, observed that within most businesses, there are three tribal subcultures: executives, managers and operators. In a large organisation, the executive’s implicit story is: ‘I set the course, you manage the project, they deliver the work’. But is this the reality? It probably feels more like: ‘I expect results; you promise me a deadline, they’re late again’. In the manager’s version of the story, it might sound like: ‘I plan the work, you (my team) wreck my plan, he (my boss) promises miracles’. While the operator’s story goes something like this: ‘I do the work, you (my manager) get in my way, he (the boss) is clueless about what it takes’.
From these different perspectives, everyone is trying, everyone feels squeezed—and it’s always someone else’s fault. Instead of a well-orchestrated performance, it’s more like three groups playing different genres of music in different keys and time signatures. No one grasps the whole story and the work is often a grind, wasteful and unjust. What’s the remedy? Tell a bigger story—an aligning narrative which allows the hearing of every voice. A vision so compelling that individuals find themselves willing to sacrifice their desires to something bigger than themselves. To have the possibility of living into a more meaningful future self, amplified by committing, as individuals within a collective, to the extraordinary.
“Stories help us understand the world around us
and our journeys within it.”
The language we use affects the story we internalise. Consciously or not, we are all well versed in the use of metaphor and turn to it when we want to provide the necessary emotional charge to what we are trying to communicate. On a recent assignment, a very distraught senior manager, who had been with the business from its inception 30 years ago, talked of his plant having ‘cancer’ from the repeated neglect of necessary maintenance. Of course, a machine cannot have cancer in the way we know it, but he was able to convey in a visceral way how the neglect had affected his team and destroyed the pride in their work.
My area of specialisation, the Theory of Constraints is also a story—one that aims to simplify the messy complexity of our organisations and focus where it counts. When I’m introducing the concepts, I say there’s no way that TOC can be what Eli Goldratt, its physicist inventor, wanted it to be—a grand theory of everything. Life and its experiences are far too complex to be reduced to a single idea. However, I tell the story that you don’t need to know quantum mechanics to drive a car around a corner; Newton will do just fine.
You don’t have to understand the absolute truth to have order gain a victory over chaos. As Goldratt himself put it, ‘I would rather be approximately right than exactly wrong.’ The idea of allowing ourselves to fail, learn from the experience, and try again. That’s a story we can tell yourselves. And if enough people share it, the culture changes.
Real leadership doesn’t happen by fiat; it comes because people want to follow. As a leader, it’s your job to create the conditions for your team to thrive. If we seek to change people, we need to inspire them. That means establishing purpose. How? With a story that aligns desire with the will to overcome the challenges that will get in the way. Many companies now have a role called ‘chief storyteller’. It’s often a marketing or communications role, but it should really be the executive accountable. More than that, everyone should have a sense of shared narrative—and tell themselves a version of the story that gets them fired up. And if you’re keeping things to yourself and not sharing a story, know that your people will provide one of their own.
The ‘cancer’ I referred to earlier was a powerful analogy. It wasn’t the narrative; it was a cry of frustration. But it could lead to a more positive story, one where the cancer has been identified and treatment has begun. The road to recovery would be long, slow and painful. And in no way certain. But how different the mindset of the team if they believe the cancer can excised. The organisation could go through remission, get back on its feet and thrive. Or maybe you can drop that narrative entirely and create an even more positive story. In the next article, we’ll go deeper into these big overarching narratives and how to craft them.
Now read the other parts in our storytelling series:
My own story is in my book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy my book (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
“There is nothing either good or bad,
but thinking makes it so”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
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