Telling stories is a fundamental part of being human.
We imagine early humans sitting around the fire telling stories as a way of passing knowledge from one generation to the next. We still use fables and parables to convey complex ideas about morality and social attitudes. Stories both educate and entertain. We use stories to engage people, to draw them in, and to empathise.
A world without stories would be duller and less memorable.
But, does your strategy tell a story?
No, I am not suggesting you use anthropomorphised animals in your business strategy. Or that you try to communicate your strategy as a romantic comedy or a courtroom drama.
But you can use some of the techniques of storytelling to communicate your strategy more clearly and to engage your team more directly. And by doing so, you can increase the chances that your team will work with you effectively to deliver it.
A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It usually involves a hero or protagonist going on a journey. Perhaps they start off being happy. But then through a series of misfortunes and poor decisions they end up in ruin. Or perhaps they start off with an uneasy sense that something is amiss. But then through a process of self-discovery and striving they achieve their potential and triumph.
To work, the narrative arc must be believable. The audience must believe that each step in the story could plausibly lead each next step, and so forth. If they don’t, the illusion is shattered. The audience will disengage. The story will not be internalised. The underlying message will not be carried.
So too, a strategy has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning, the strategy must outline the current state of the organisation, why it is that way, and what is good or bad about it. In the end, it must outline where you want the organisation to go and why that is better. The middle must describe how the organisation will get from its initial state to the desired end state.
If your narrative arc doesn’t work – if the thread of logic is not intact – people will reject your strategy.
Humans are sense-making creatures. We want and we need the world to make sense. If it doesn’t, we fill in the blanks until it does.
Sometimes, that means making up explanations. We’re so practiced at it, that sometimes we don’t even know that we’re doing it. And then we forget which parts we made up and which parts we didn’t.
If you’re writing fiction, you can sometimes use that to your advantage. If your narrative arc carries, it may be OK if your audience needs to fill in a few blanks for themselves. It can even help people to personalise the story more. But we’ve all read a book or watched a film which just didn’t stack up. The gaps were just too big. We’re left dissatisfied.
If you’re communicating your business strategy, you probably don’t want to leave too much to the imagination. If you leave too many blanks for people to fill in for themselves, then you risk each individual subtly interpreting the strategy in slightly different ways. Collaboration and alignment can quickly give way to chaos.
Leave everything else out
Have you ever noticed that James Bond never seems to brush his teeth? When you see him smile, you assume he must do so. But the directors wisely choose to leave that out. It’s an unnecessary and inappropriate detail for an action-adventure film.
And so, I was quite surprised to see him doing just that in “No Time to Die”. It was noticeably out of place. Until, that is, that I realised that Spectre needed that toothbrush to harvest his DNA to… well, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot in case you’ve not seen it yet.
People’s attention is limited. Your strategy, your story, should include all of the detail that is necessary and no more. Anything extra is a distraction.
In developing your strategy, you will no doubt end up with lots of insight which, whilst true, is not strictly necessary to tell the final story. Leave it out. You won’t get extra points for proving how hard you worked or how clever you are.
Cast of characters
Few stories involve only one character without reference to any others. Whilst they may focus on a single hero or protagonist, that person will also have supporters, detractors and enemies. Other characters may simply introduce new information and perspectives. In a good story, at least some of these secondary characters will also have depth. They may even be on journeys of their own.
Your strategy may focus on your organisation and its customers. But it shouldn’t ignore your competitors, your suppliers and distributors, your regulators, or the host of other stakeholders who could impact your outcomes.
None of the characters in your strategy are flat and static. They all have their own ambitions and strategies. And these may run counter to your own.
A strategy should be cognisant of these. It should bring them to life and weave them into the narrative arc. If you don’t do this, then your sense-making audience almost certainly will.
Engage the heart and mind
There is a reason why stories don’t simply describe what happened in chronological order. They mix things up. They explore characters’ motivations and how they feel as much as what they do. This is part of what makes stories such an engaging way of communicating. And what makes them more memorable.
As Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Your strategy should be based on rational analysis. It should be planned and executed with discipline. But if you want people to commit to it – to go the extra mile to deliver it even when things are not going to plan – then you need to engage their hearts as well as their heads.
Your audience should be able to relate to the characters/stakeholders in your strategy on a personal level. To believe that they really will behave in the way your strategy suggests. A good story has the audience rooting for the hero. Your strategy should have your audience rooting for your company and its customers.
It takes a village to write a story
There will always be gifted storytellers. People who can pen a tale and have it shoot straight to the top of the best-seller list.
Most of us probably have to work a little harder to get it right. Strategies, like stories, emerge and evolve over time. They are a collaborative effort. We need to tell them repeatedly in order to collect the feedback we need to improve and refine them. And sometimes we need a little help from experienced professionals to get them right.
A strategy needs many people’s perspectives to round it out. You should be telling your strategy repeatedly, not just to ensure your message is received, but so that you can refine it based on feedback and new information which emerges.
Does your strategy tell a story? Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate complex and subtle ideas. Does your strategy deserve any less?
About the author: Chris Fox is an independent business strategy consultant who helps organisations to develop evidence-based future-oriented business strategies for growth and success. He is also the founder of StratNavApp.com, the collaborative online tool for business strategy development and execution.