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What Works: The Business of Storytelling

June 12, 2002
Related Topics: Featured Article

When you want to effect change in the workplace, what do you do? Some peoplecraft vision and mission statements. Others set measurable goals. Still othershead to a retreat site for fresh thinking.

Then there are the people who tell stories.

Storytelling has been around for thousands of years, and it’s arguably yourmost powerful (and least used) tool for sharing information, building community,capturing the imagination, and exerting influence. By telling the right kinds ofstories, we can bring about profound change, says Annette Simmons, author of TheStory Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling.

Simmons hadn’t thought much about stories until 1991, when she attended herfirst storytelling festival. Sitting in a big tent among 400 people, she kepther eyes, ears, and mind wide open. An African-American storyteller took to thestage -- and that’s when Simmons heard a man seated behind her mutter then-word. She looked at him, and his arms were tightly crossed, his face hard withprejudice.

The storyteller recalled the 1960s, when he and his friends were activists inthe struggle for freedom. He told about being terrified to march in Mississippi,and about one late evening when he was sitting around a campfire with severalfellow civil-rights marchers. As darkness crept in, so did fear. Would someonecome after them? Then one of the men began singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”A second man joined in, then another.

“As he told his story, we felt like we were at that campfire,” Simmonsrelates. “There was something soothing and touching in what he was saying. Hestarted singing, and pretty soon we in the audience were singing. I turnedaround, and that man who had so much hate just moments before had uncrossed hisarms. He was singing too, and his face was soft, and I felt a connection withhim.”

This is the stuff that stirs our emotions. And that’s why stories are sopowerful. Think about it. Would a logical, reasoned argument against racialhatred have moved this person? When it comes to changing age-old beliefs, canfactual information make a difference?

What about the workplace? Can stories wield influence in an environment wherefactual information often reigns supreme? Let me answer by way of a story.

Ten years ago, the newly elected governor of Ohio vowed to improve stategovernment services. He promised shorter waits in licensing lines, greateraccuracy in requested information, more bang for the taxpayer buck. And hepromised that this would not be another management-driven program. Theinitiative would be created and guided by a partnership involving union leadersand managers, and employees would get the training and authority needed toeffect their own changes in the workplace.

Partnership. Empowerment. Training. You’d expect real enthusiasm from thestate’s 63,000 employees. But most just yawned or rolled their eyes. Challengethe culture? Change the system? Do it with employees instead of to them?

Then came the governor’s fateful trip to Rochester, New York, just a fewmonths into his new administration. He joined 10 agency directors and key unionleaders at Xerox headquarters for a firsthand look at quality improvement andunion-management partnership.

The Ohio delegation expected a just-the-facts presentation from managementand a separate presentation from the unions, perhaps followed by acobbled-together vision of how the two sides were teaming up. Instead, inmeetings and informal conversations throughout the day, the visitors heard asingle message of people working together as true partners. There was so muchunity that the Ohioans even had trouble distinguishing managers from unionleaders.

Late that evening, as they talked on the plane heading back to Columbus, thegovernor and others experienced a classic aha moment. They all agreed that theoriginal name for their effort -- total quality management -- now seemedflat-out wrong. If a union/management partnership was central to everything, thename had to say so. And so at 30,000 feet they made their first decision as asingle team. The effort would be called “Quality Services Through Partnership.”

Thus was born The Story. In many of his future speeches on the workings ofstate government, then-Gov. George V. Voinovich would tell about the visit toXerox, the airborne name change, and what it all meant. The union leaders begantelling it, too. So did managers and front-line workers. The Story is stillbeing told, and it continues to win over skeptics who think that qualityimprovement in state government is just another management program.

Anyone can use stories to exert influence in the workplace. Unfortunately,Simmons says, most stories accentuate the negative. She notices a glut of “griping,groaning stories about how ignorant senior leadership is, how useless it is totry to do a really good job, and how you just can’t win.

“Pay attention to the stories you’re telling,” Simmons says. “Askyourself, Are these stories meaningful to me? Are they creating the sort ofworkplace I want to be in? And are they making me feel better?”

If you’re tired of internal competition, for instance, and you hear a storyabout people from different departments who left their silos to team up on aproject, start telling it and retelling it. If you want to nurture greaterrisk-taking, tell a story about an employee who tried a new approach to an oldprocess, failed, tried again, failed again, then finally succeeded. If you wantpeople to be more open with each other, get things started by telling a storyabout yourself -- like that saga from your teen years, when your first boss atyour first job had to leave for an afternoon and put you in charge of the wholeoperation.

“When you begin to talk in stories,” Simmons says, “yourblack-and-white words turn into color. Your drab requests turn into a mission.People find you to be more compelling. And once that happens, others will seethat stories work, and they’ll start telling stories, too.”

So what are you waiting for? Start telling.

Workforce, May 2002, pp. 22,24 -- Subscribe Now!

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