Strategic Storytelling: How Fiction Becomes Reality

Thursday, 28. November 2013

- Increasing market share by 5%
- Cutting production costs by 10%
- Developing new business segments
- Investing in R&D projects

Sounds familiar? Well, that’s hardly surprising, as most strategic plans consist of such lists of goals and measures. The bullet list format is still standard, although the problems associated with it have been well-known for quite some time.

Back in 1998, Gordon Shaw, at the time Executive Director of Planning at 3M, noted in a Harvard Business Review article that bullet lists are not suitable for communicating strategies to employees. Firstly, they fail to inspire and motivate employees to take action to implement the strategy. Secondly, bullet points are usually too generic, that is the items listed could more or less apply to any kind of business, leaving employees wondering what exactly they are supposed to do to achieve the goals. Also the relationships between the various bullet points and the underlying assumptions are not clear. With "strategic storytelling," Shaw finally found a viable alternative to the traditional communication approach.

Advantages of Strategic Storytelling

No matter whether told orally, in writing, or via video message, stories about the future strategic direction of the company have great advantages over the bullet list format. Stories take information out of isolation and place it in a context. In addition, well-told stories can move the listeners both intellectually and emotionally. They create a vivid mental image, an emotional experience. This helps the listeners to better understand the information and recall it easier later on. At the same time, it helps employees to develop a stronger sense of pride and purpose. This can significantly increase their motivation to implement the new strategy and contribute to greater connectedness with the employer.

Peter Guber (2011a), author of the book Tell to Win, puts it this way: “A well-told story can drive change, inspire innovation, stimulate more sales, foster collaboration, re-brand a company, incite viral advocacy for a mission or cause, generate more effective management and help overcome resistance.“

Strategic stories are particularly useful for businesses that are undergoing change; that need to reinvent, restructure, or reposition themselves. They help them in “moving from an old story to a new story“ (Morgalis, 2011).


How to Tell Great Stories

Granted, not every manager or strategist is a born storyteller. With some professional help, however, everyone can learn and master this communication skill which is becoming increasingly important in the business environment. There are now a number of consulting agencies that specialize in helping companies and managers telling their stories. Here are a few tips how to get started:

  • Follow a clear structure. In his article, Shaw points out that the structure of a strategic story is similar to a three-act play. In the first act, you need to define the setup. That means you need to provide some background information on the industry, the characters (competitors), the main influencing factors, and the key drivers for change allowing your listeners to paint a picture in their minds. In the second act, you need to introduce the obstacle the protagonist (your company) is facing, including the nature, extent, and potential impact of the problem. Here you will want to build up some suspense leading to the climax of the story in the final act. In the third act, you present your solution to the problem faced. Be sure to give good and logical arguments how the company will overcome the obstacle and achieve the desired goal. Try to create a "wow" moment, so that the employees will get up and say: "Yes, let's do it!"

  • Keep it short and simple. Focus on the key message that you wish to convey. 

  • Use present tense as if the story were actually happening right now and take a look into the future. This will give the listeners the feeling that they themselves are already taking part in it and that they can actively influence the story’s outcome. The goal should be to create a shared vision for the future, which is both achievable and desirable.

  • Use emotions and passion to allow the listeners to build an emotional connection with the story. This will not only help the employees to better recall the story later on when making decisions, but also to motivate them to do their best to make the fiction become reality.


It is probably safe to say that bullet lists will never entirely vanish from the strategic planning process. After all, for strategists and managers they remain an important intermediate step to reduce complexity and to organize their thoughts. However, they are certainly not the best way to communicate new strategies to employees, to spark commitment, and achieve strategic and operational alignment. Strategic Storytelling offers a good alternative for this. It helps to breathe life into the plain bullet points and to win the minds of the employees for the common cause.



Literature


Shaw, G., Brown, R., & Bromiley, P. (1998, Mai-June). Strategic stories: How 3M is rewriting business planning. Harvard Business Review, 41-50.

Guber, P. (2011a). Telling purposeful stories: An organization’s most under-utilized competency. People & Strategy, 34(1), 4-5.

Guber, P. (2011b) Tell to win: Connect, persuade, and triumph with the hidden power of story. New York: Crown Business.

Margolis, M. (2011). Getting people to care: Give them a story to believe in. People & Strategy, 34(1), 6-7.