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Ditch the PowerPoint – tell me a story instead

The movies we watched as children are still etched in our memories. They were formative experiences, spawning generations of Peter Pans, Robin Hoods, Joan of Arcs and Princess Leias. We connected to those stories, to their characters and what they represent, to the virtues and the ideals. We dreamed of being part of the story, of fighting for the cause. Those were stories we believed in.

Knowing just how powerful stories can be, what can organizations learn from them about building their own narratives of change?

The power of storytelling 

Storytelling is universal and as ancient as humankind. It occurs in every culture and from every age. It serves to entertain, to inform and to promulgate  cultural traditions and values, and is essential for cultural cohesion. It can encompass myths, legends, fables, religion, prayers, proverbs and instructions1.

From Native American tribes in Hawaii to the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, from traditional Irish storytellers to the Passover Seder, storytelling is a defining element of the cultural heritage of every human society. Because storytelling is an integral part of who we are as individuals, stories also have an important role to play in the life of organizations. They can be used to define organizational culture and values, build cohesion, connect people to a common purpose and create energy around change initiatives. 

Ditch the PowerPoint and tell me a story

Over the past decade, I've helped organizations manage their transitions ‒ to a new management team following a merger or an acquisition, to new ways of working and organizing or to new systems. Almost invariably, those life-changing stories are told using PowerPoint slides packed with conventional business rhetoric, quotes and statistics, and financial and technical jargon.

Imagine yourself at a party: to introduce yourself, you take out your phone and start showing pictures of the places you’ve visited, the diplomas you’ve earned, the cars you’ve owned. You certainly won’t make many friends using that approach, and it won’t be long before you are persona non grata at the party.

In an interview with HBR, award-winning writer Robert McKee argues that executives can engage listeners on a whole new level if they toss their PowerPoint slides and learn to tell good stories instead 2. A good story holds the audience’s attention, engages the listener’s emotions and builds the creative energy that propels the story toward a desirable end (like Robin Hood or Joan of Arc). 

A few ideas for crafting the story of change

“What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.” ‒ Pete Docter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar. 

Pixar has been a benchmark in the world of storytelling for years. Let’s try a simple exercise: use Pixar’s storytelling structure to craft a compelling story of change.

  1. Once upon a time ….Every story begins at a stage where life is in balance ‒ each day is familiar to the listeners. Use examples that are the foundation of the organizational culture, known stories that define the organization, stories that most people can relate to. 
  2. Every day – Describe what people do, their day-to-day behaviour, shared values. 
  3. One day – The inciting incident – a merger, demanding clients, disgruntled employees. The story proceeds to describe the struggle to restore balance (remember Star Wars?). A compelling story will challenge its listeners’ perception of reality (management doesn’t do anything, they don't listen to us, we don’t matter). 
  4. Because of that – Here’s where you introduce the change ‒ the global solution that will restore balance to the organization. Why is this the best solution and how will balance be restored? What will be each person’s role, what collective actions are needed to restore balance?
  5. Until finally – ​​The new order is established. What will the future look like, what values will be shared, which behaviours will be encouraged and which will be set aside? How will this new order improve the lives of all those involved? 

Storytelling : Bringing your story of change to life

Compelling stories foster support, allowing leaders to lead authentically, in sync with the rest of the organization. They engage teams and get everyone pulling in the same direction. Stories of change are excellent tools for building core values and resilience within the organization. Stories of change cannot be stories about leadership, though. In a true storytelling tradition, they are shared stories, told by everyone in the organizations, they are enhanced by lived experiences, and the ending is shaped to reflect the true desires of the storytellers. Until finally... 

Catalina Barbarosie

Change management and transformation consultant

[1] National Geographic

[2] HBR

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