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Storytelling In The News: #139

HBR article, "Telling Stories", reviewed in Many Worlds

May 4, 2004

The Many Worlds Strategy Studio is an interesting website that systematically reviews the business literature on a daily basis. Today it has a review of my Harvard Business Review article, "Telling Tales", and gives it four stars (out of a possible five star rating). At the time of writing, the community gives the article five stars. The review reads as follows:

"Stephen Denning is well known for advocating the use of stories as a powerful management tool. Despite his own initial skepticism about “touchy-feely stuff” and a typical preference for hard analysis, he came to appreciate the ability of stories to galvanize an organization around a defined business goal. In this article, Denning tells the tale of how he came to understand some surprising aspects of storytelling for leadership, and he sets out seven types of stories, each suited to a distinct purpose.

Denning suggests that the ability to tell the right story at the right time is emerging as an essential leadership skill, one especially well suited to handle turbulent business conditions. How can you know which narrative strategies is right for what circumstances? Denning explains how storytelling can be used for seven different purposes: Sparking action; communicating who you are; transmitting values; fostering collaboration; taming the grapevine; sharing knowledge; and leading people into the future. You will find a handy summary of these alternative approaches in the sidebar “A Storytelling Catalog”.

As he investigated the use of storytelling in organizations—especially to lead change—Denning made a series of discoveries that often went against intuition or expert advice. He warns: Beware the well-told story! Denning found that “springboard stories”, which aim to motivate action, should not include much detail, since that will distract from the message. A “minimalist narrative” can be more effective in these cases because it allows listeners to relate the story to their own circumstances. He also warns us to “Beware the positive story!”. Too positive a story may be dismissed, and people typically learn more from their mistakes than from their successes. Not only do negative stories have a role to play, so do “boring” stories, such as the technical tales that circulated among Xerox repair technicians.

It also notes several other books and articles of relevance to storytelling including:

1. Optimize by Peter Guber

Editor reviewed on 04/03/03, originally published on 04/01/03

Peter Guber, former CEO of Sony Entertainment, now chairman of Mandalay Entertainment and author of a new book, says it’s the poets rather than the engineers who creating bonding with customers. In the movie industry, market winners use storytelling and ‘state change’. Guber suggests that capturing the essence of an entertainment-hit approach and translating it into your own products requires a tolerance for risk.

2. How Storytelling Builds Next-Generation Leaders

MIT Sloan Management Review by Douglas A. Ready

Editor reviewed on 01/19/03, originally published on 08/01/02

Executives with little patience for “soft stuff” may skip over this article, but will miss out on a relatively hard-headed approach. Douglas Ready’s storytelling advice grows out of extensive study by five researchers who looked for innovative and effective practices being used to develop leaders. Executive-led storytelling initiatives outperformed many other methodologies. Next-generation leaders are those who can translate strategy into results and core values into day-to-day behaviors, and storytelling seems to be a powerful way to develop such leaders. Of course Ready is not referring to off-the-cuff chats or quick inspirational speeches. Instead, he identifies and explains the five ingredients of effective stories, then uses the case study of a global player in the financial-services arena to show how storytelling can be used to align high-potential employees with the company’s strategy and values. The conclusion of Ready’s story comes with his outline of how top teams can implement a storytelling leadership program.

3. When Stories Create an Organization

strategy+business by Janis Forman

Editor reviewed on 08/31/02, originally published on 08/15/99

Do you find too many executive meetings to be a numbing flurry of PowerPoint slides, bullet points, and graphics? What was once a handy tool for conveying certain kinds of information efficiently has become the dominant form of communication. Janis Forman makes a case for spending less time on colorful slides and more on shaping your message into a compelling story. Stories excel at giving meaning to information and engaging attention and enthusiasm. “Strategic stories” imagine and depict an organization’s future, making the future feel real for the listeners. By “story”, Forman means an argument for a particular vision of an organization. This argument carries the listeners by presenting the order of events in sequence, giving them an air of inevitability, and by linking the advocated reality to the supporting data. Forman offers a device for developing or testing the coherence of the executive’s story and the evidence behind it by using an analysis tree. The analysis tree can also help managers develop flexibility in their storytelling. Forman makes other useful points about effective storytelling including the importance of language appropriate to the organization and anticipating objections.

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