Change Management and Storytelling by Ron Leeman

It’s funny how things trigger your creative juices isn’t it … someone made the following comment in my Change Management and the Brain article post in the ACMP Group … “Great article. It's the reason I did qualitative research on using storytelling as a means of sustaining organisational change” so I replied “Storytelling is great and that much better when you have some great stories to tell. I think that might be the subject of another article” … thanks for the inspiration Monica.

Once again I will follow the format of my previous few articles because, based on the feedback, this is a format that readers seem to like.

What exactly is Storytelling?

Storytelling uses words and images to bring ideas and concepts to life. While stories can be used to feed the imagination, storytelling also has value in managing change and transformation. Businesses can use narrative storytelling techniques to illustrate the importance of an initiative, explain product value or spell out the reasoning behind critical organizational change decisions.

Who doesn’t love a good story!

I do which is why I was motivated to tell some stories about my career in change through my “The Life and Times of a Change Manager” articles. It was a great feeling to dust off the cobwebs of my brain and recall some of the things I had done during my long a checkered career.

Whilst these articles covered the period 1974 to 2004 (currently … when I have time I will start these again) my intention was to share knowledge although I was criticised when I shared to a specific Group for “self-promotion” and my articles were no longer allowed to be uploaded to that Group. Never mind eh!

Okee dokee back to the purpose of this article …

According to Diana DiMeo, a Roosevelt University Masters graduate, our “brains do not easily recall data”, particularly when we are in the midst of a constant information-onslaught (as is often the case at planned marketing events). If, however, we are asked to recall the details of a headlining newspaper article we read recently or if we are required to provide a synopsis of an action-packed movie we enjoyed, the details are much easier to access.

The reason for the storytelling phenomenon is summarised in the image below:

Let’s now explore in a bit more detail.

Ultimately, the commitment to change a behavior requires a willingness to expend effort to changing that behavior. Finding out about other people who have succeeded at behavior change can be an inspiration both to make that commitment and to follow through on it.

Why use Storytelling?

Nothing will guarantee you to successfully change organisational culture. However, it costs little to leverage the power of storytelling as lubrication for the gears of change. Like any other tool in the change management toolkit, used judiciously, storytelling in change management can help your company leadership to successfully implement change and hopefully, live happily ever after.

Facts and figures are memorable to computers, not to people. Research on memory conclusively shows that all the critical details, data, and analytics, are more effectively emotionalized and metabolized by the listener when they’re embedded in a story – and they become significantly more actionable.”

We know that people are much more likely to get on-board with organisational change if they feel they understand the ‘why?’ This includes the reason for change, and for changing right now, what the change looks like, and most importantly – what it means for them. This means taking the business case as a starting point and turning it into a meaningful, honest narrative which speaks to everyone.

In a company, the stories that are shared usually have to do with "the way we do things here," from the best ways to get your work done to how to dress to how you're expected to conduct yourself at the office. This is your culture.

Stories are a critical leadership tool because:

  • Stories and metaphors are natural vehicles for delivering survival information in a changing context
  • Sharing a story which includes an element of challenge, can generate empathy in the listener and in this way can build engagement
  • People in your organisation will fill any void of information with their own guesses at what’s going on. This can distract and inhibit performance

It is through listening to these stories that employees keep building a better and better understanding of what action and behaviour is expected of them. The sharing of stories has the added advantages of recognising the people who are living this change and creating peer pressure for others to follow. Finally, these stories also give the senior leadership an often required jolt of motivation to keep at it.

Conversation is the most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit–for growth, leadership, and definitely for change. It’s also one of the most undervalued and as a result under used. Story telling is a key component of conversation.

Storytelling is one of the few ways we can effectively connect knowledge with emotion. Stories help us make sense of information through narrative. The best stories are those that can capture the head, the heart, and the hands of your listeners.

Increasingly, today’s organizations are facing some kind of transformational change. To lead that change successfully, today’s senior leaders need the right tools to not only survive the change but also to derive real value.

What makes a good story?

#1: Set the Parameters

Your business story should be engaging. But if it doesn’t have a clear focus, you’ll quickly lose the attention of consumers. Establish context right off the bat.

#2: Be Authentic

Authentic storytelling is key to gaining consumer trust. Don’t try to fool your audience with an over-the-top tale. Customers know when you try to pull a fast one on them, and they don’t appreciate it.

#3: Have a Clear Outcome

A great business story leaves your audience with something. What lesson was learned in the story, and what should consumers learn from hearing it?

#4: Be Consistent

Business storytelling takes practice. Know the story inside and out before presenting it to customers. This will help you tell the story naturally.

#5: Get Customers Involved

Use business storytelling to strike an emotional connection with customers. Talk about how an event related to your business affected you and what you learned.

Step 1 - Identify the behaviours you want repeating

The golden seed comes in different varieties. Some organisations plant knowledge of the specific goals they want to achieve. Others plant knowledge of their corporate values. Others use hybrids of the above.

Step 2: Find individuals and teams within your organisation who others believe to have the golden seed

Having discovered your golden seed, it is time to prepare the ground. Above all else, it is vital that you do so inclusively, encouraging internal nominations of people and teams.

Step 3: Bringing the human side of the stories to life

Make the storytelling interactive. Interview the nominators and other people who have been touched by the nominees for anecdotes about how these particular behaviours, strengths, values or achievements make a positive impact in their daily lives and the lives of customers or other stakeholders.

Step 4: Sharing your success stories

Once captured (in film or words) there are many ways to share such stories e.g. at a staff event; via social media; on your intranet; in your induction programme; in your annual review; in a Hidden Heroes column of your internal newsletter.

Step 5: Encouraging your people to continue to share their successes

However you publish these stories, find ways to encourage your people to continue to share their ongoing successes. Perhaps you can invite comments and nominations for “champion of the month” (or week, or day - depending on your capacity).

LESSON 1: MAKE PEOPLE ROOT FOR YOU

When starting a story, first quickly introduce yourself as a clear character.

LESSON 2: HAVE A FEW GO-TO STORIES AT THE READY

You should have a polished story or two in your repertoire. You never know when it’ll come in handy

LESSON 3: STORIES ARE ABOUT HOW YOU FELT

The “plot” of your story is almost irrelevant when it comes to making a connection with your audience.

LESSON 4: THIS MAY SEEM OBVIOUS, BUT . . .

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end.

LESSON 5: GOOD STORIES ARE UNIVERSAL

Your story needs to framed inclusively; there has to be something your audience identifies with.

LESSON 6: DON’T BE BORING

This lesson should be taken with a grain of salt, because all of us who’ve been on this earth a few years have a trove of stories worth telling.

One - Every story needs the 5 C’s – Circumstance, Curiosity, Characters, Conversations and Conflict

So when crafting your story lay out the circumstances. Set the scene and give the vital information that will provide context for your reader.

Two - Stop bragging and start relating to your audience

At the end of the day no one cares that you graduated top of your class from Harvard or cured a rare form of cancer in Africa.

Three - Spark the emotional side of your audience’s brain

Whether you feel sad, happy, scared, or content, feeling something makes us feel more alive, which is why it is critical to make your listeners or readers feel.

Four - Get Your Readers Engaged Through the Senses

Appealing to the senses through your story immediately engages the reader. Set the scene by describing what it visually looks like.

Five - Start Your Story in the Middle

By the time you’ve reached the AH-HA moment, your audience members are synced into their Instagram feeds or in a deep-dream filled REM sleep.

Six - Give Your Audience What Matters

So keep your audience on the edge of their seat with these tips to charm them and leave them wanting more.

In conclusion (well nearly)

As you can see, there is a lot to be said about the use of storytelling to enhance the success rate of change initiatives. But the key elements for me are:

  • Characterisation … who you are in the story.
  • Authenticity … keep it real.
  • Consistency … know your story inside and out.
  • Delivery … keep your audience on the edge of their seat.
  • Engagement … appeal to the senses.
  • Emotional … convey how you feel … sad, happy, scared or contented.

So …

Just to kick things off here are a couple of my own examples of how I used storytelling:

I was involved in the implementation of a Departmental wide Knowledge Management system which was designed to give Departmental Ministers access to a central repository of Ministerial Briefs written by Briefing Authors. I managed to turnaround one particularly resistant Business Unit by telling the story of how a Ministerial Brief went through its life-cycle from inception through to publication in the new repository. This included preparing a sample brief myself and walking it through how it would be stored, accessed and used. The Business Unit became a staunch supporter of the new system and became its most prolific user.

I was involved in a major Head Office re-location Project in Singapore and as part of my role I was asked to present at pre-Departure Briefings to explain to people what technology would change in the new building. For these presentations I created a story that began with them arriving at the new building and what would happen to them from checking in at Reception to arriving at their Workstations in their new work zones. This included a step-by-step guide about what they needed to do to set up and use the new state of the art technology. All users over three phased moves were up and ready to work by 10am at the latest on their first day (with a few exceptions). 

Finally ... yes really

Here is a great example of storytelling versus bulleted PPT slides:

In his 2018 annual letter, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos repeated his rule that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings. What Bezos replaced it with provides even more valuable insight for entrepreneurs and leaders.

In his letter, and in a recent discussion at the Forum on Leadership at the Bush Center, Bezos revealed that "narrative structure" is more effective than PowerPoint. According to Bezos, new executives are in for a culture shock in their first Amazon meetings. Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a "six-page memo that's narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns."

After everyone's done reading, they discuss the topic. "It's so much better than the typical PowerPoint presentation for so many reasons," Bezos added.

So what were the three key take aways:

1. Our brains are hardwired for narrative.

Narrative storytelling might not have been as critical for our survival as a species as food, but it comes close. The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and--most important for leadership--people recall and retain information more effectively when it's presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.

2. Stories are persuasive.

Emotion is not a bad thing. The greatest movements in history were triggered by speakers who were gifted at making rational and emotional appeals: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and John F. Kennedy, who blended science and emotion to inspire America's moon program. Neuroscientists have found emotion is the fastest path to the brain. In other words, if you want your ideas to spread, story is the single best vehicle we have to transfer that idea to another person.

3. Bullet points are the least effective way of sharing ideas.

Bullets don't inspire. Stories do. Simply put, the brain is not built to retain information that's structured as bullet points on a slide. It's well-known among neuroscientists that we recall things much better when when we see pictures of the object or topic than when we read text on a slide. Visuals are much, much more powerful than text alone. That's why, if you choose to use slides, use more pictures than words and don't use bullet points … ever.

Thanks again for reading ... 

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I started work for the UK’s MoD and after completing intensive training at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham (now the UK’s Defence Academy) I worked for them as a Work Study Practitioner, and Organisation and Methods Officer which involved observing people working, making changes to ways of working and then measuring them to determine efficiencies. I call this the forerunner of Change Management. Following the MoD I had a stint with Abbey National BS/Abbey as a Business Analyst, Productivity Consultant and Senior Business Consultant. After Abbey, I started as an Independent Change Management Consultant and worked in many industry sectors but all involving change in some way, shape, or form. I now live in Thailand where I continue my change work such as researching matters of interest concerning change, coaching & mentoring for change management and authoring consulting frameworks and business templates. I still do the odd project in the Region just to keep “my hand in”. In 2012 I was recognised as a Change Leader by the World HRD Congress.