The Art of Strategic Narratives: Story building

user Jim Humes
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The klieg lights have been shining on storytelling as a leadership capability for quite a while now. The reasons are many: telling a story (or narrative) about a vision for what’s possible can drive product development or, better, launch a moonshot that redefines an industry. A story becomes an organization’s best recruiting tool when it connects its work to a higher calling. A brand, at its essence, is a story that builds an emotional connection with customers—and also allows a company to command premiums in the marketplace. Most importantly, a good story adds stickiness and dimension to information to help people remember what they have just heard.

But before the storytelling, comes the story building.

Who should be involved in crafting your vision, mission, strategy, brand, or culture narratives? In my experience, getting the senior team involved in the process not only makes them better storytellers but also provides a valuable alignment experience. While they might not be writers, they are experts on what your organization does, believes in, and aspires to, which are the essential elements of a corporate narrative.

Communal stories

Organizational narratives are different from the stories you find in bookstores because they’re actually communal stories. While they rely on common elements (emotion, intelligence, conflict, wisdom, vision), there are a few important distinctions:

  • They’re conceived by groups rather than individuals (think Constitutional Convention)
  • The story arc follows a beginning-middle-future structure because the story of the organization hasn’t “ended” yet
  • In the place of the ending is a picture of the desired future and the steps that will define the journey forward

For a narrative to be successful, the diverse realities and aspirations of the organization need to appear in the storyline, and this requires a different type of creative process.

Tragedy narrowly averted

A few years ago, I was working with the CEO of an organization that was preparing to move in a new direction. She had written the words of a new vision statement, gone deep with her thinking about the strategy, and had identified some ways the culture would need to change.  It was at this point that she asked me to help her hash out the language for a new corporate (what we call a “macro”) narrative that she could present to her team to solicit their comments and blessing.

I responded that the odds of getting the end-product to stick under these circumstances were slim—the CEO was asking her team to jump into a group editing process without being part of the creation.  “The group doesn’t respond well to a blank page,” she countered. But as we played out possible scenarios, she saw that bringing a polished draft to the meeting could be perceived as a fait accompli. Some team members would consider it a gift that they didn’t have to grapple with this “squishy” side of the business. Others would debate specific words, pull out the thesaurus, and create a swirl of semantic arguments around “fuel” vs. “empower” vs. the dreaded “leverage.” A leader from the company’s early days would dig in his heels at the first mention of “culture.” In short, a linguistic brawl would ensue.

We’ve probably all been through sessions like these that produce a porridge of overthought words that wouldn’t light up anyone’s heart. And when you don’t feel excited about the story, the result is a click-and-read cascade that leaves presenters and audiences wishing they were anywhere else.

The story-building process

There’s a better way to create communal stories, with a proven model: the writer’s room. Think about a show you’ve just binge-watched. Months (or years) earlier, a group of strong personalities sat around a table, tossing out ideas and building on each other’s. At the head sat the person who set the day’s writing agenda and owned the final product (sound familiar?).

What might make this example aspirational is that these writers are expert collaborators in addition to being experts at their craft. Their livelihoods depend on their ability to play well with others. As a result, all ideas are safe, the tangents that spring up get captured for future use, and their common goal remains front and center throughout the process. And only after building the blueprint that everyone understands and aligns with does the actual writing begin.

If your team could come together like a writer’s room, the imagination and energy powering your organizational narratives would increase exponentially. What’s more, with the team deeply involved in the process, the ownership and alignment they’d feel for the story would make them into much more passionate storytellers. And when a story makes you feel, it has the power to make you stretch toward new possibilities.

But before you rush out to a story-building seminar (which isn’t a terrible idea), know that there are some basic steps to get teams crafting a narrative together that you can start practicing right now.

Round up the assumptions and evidence

If you were crafting a new vision for your company, the process would begin with getting a sense of what’s in your team’s heads. What visions have they formed independently? What evidence, beliefs, or assumptions inform those visions? Through interviews or working sessions, the story-building process begins by getting everyone’s ideas onto the table or pinned to the walls.

Debate (like the Greeks)

The noblest form of Socratic dialogue is entering a debate and being willing to have your mind changed (in the face of compelling evidence). This is the part of the process where team members assert their opinions, and the group collectively explores the beliefs underlying different arguments. For example, a vision centered on addressing climate change might pull back the covers on beliefs that need to come to the surface to have a constructive conversation. Yes, it can get messy. But getting into and out of conflict is an essential skill for teams to learn—and critical to building alignment.

Agree on the essence

During the debate, the team will find “islands of passion” (no, this is not a Fantasy Island remake). These are fundamental concepts that the team gravitates toward to form the bedrock of the vision narrative. For example, as people align on the ways the world is changing and agree on your organization’s role in either combating or accelerating that change, you’ll see the building blocks of the story emerging.

Align on the architecture

Who needs to connect with the story? By thinking about audiences and where they are—intellectually and emotionally—a functional story architecture starts to emerge. Do you need to frame the organization’s past as chapters that have brought everyone to this point? Or are you re-writing the script? Is there an external narrative you need to counter? Is there a movement that you want to lead or your people want to join? By keeping your audiences top-of-mind when answering these questions, the flow of the story will emerge.

Find the words

At this point, the team has aligned on the arc of the story. Now it’s time to find the words to tell it. This process typically moves to a smaller group tasked with developing language that gives the story the power to land both in people’s heads and hearts.

To engage and instruct

Isaac Singer, the 1978 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, once defined the purpose of literature as to “entertain and instruct.” For organizational narratives, I would suggest their purpose is to “engage and instruct.” Engage by pointing to a worthy destination…and instruct by showing people a different way to see the future and the organization’s role in bringing that vision to life.

Engaging teams with narratives represents a departure from the command-and-control style of issuing orders. Stories, by their very nature, invite people to interpret and contextualize, to bring their unique selves to their work, to unleash creativity and innovation. And once engaged, there’s little a group of people can’t do.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”                          – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

To create the longing in your organization to achieve something bigger than anyone could do on their own is a worthy goal of a story. And it’s something that, with the right process, your team can build.

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