Why "Once upon a time" ends with "Happily ever after"

Picture the scene inside one of those glass high-rises that punctuate the Sandton skyline. It's Monday morning teatime. People are telling stories: The plight of the Springbok rugby team/Bafana Bafana or the Proteas; the Saturday night movie; the latest jokes. They are animated, engaged with their story and each other, passionate about their opinion and about sharing it!

Fast forward to the PowerPoint presentation later in the day which outlines the way forward for the business for the next year. It directly affects its audience (unlike the movie, sport plot lines above). They can make or break it. Yet the discussion afterwards is lukewarm at best and often non existent. By the next day the presentation is all but forgotten.

From strategy to story

So are you missing an opportunity to make your strategy (albeit well elucidated in the Power Point deck) as riveting as the plot of last night's soapie?

Possibly. The points below make a compelling case for reframing your strategy in story terms:

  1. Do it because stories are memorable
    We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than a set of facts. Facts are important but stories are like a clothes hanger - they give the facts, shape, meaning and context. Do you remember the facts and figures around David and Goliath; Little Red Riding Hood; Romeo and Juliet? No? But for a R1000 bucks I bet you could tell the story pretty accurately!
  2. People (friends, colleagues, employees) go to war for stories
    Stories make us feel something. Passionate; excited; fearless. Exactly the stuff we always say we want people to be about the business. Stories refresh and energise us. They inspire us to action. A true story makes this point: it was the time of a hostile bid which captivated corporate South Africa some years ago; two erstwhile friends (from each of the rival companies) gathered for their customary Saturday evening braai. Talk inevitably turned to the bid. Figures about productivity, efficiency, innovation were effortlessly cited. Opinions were voiced. Eventually insults were traded. Passions rose. Punches flew! Monday-morning- black-eye's were sheepishly attributed to "taking one for the corporate strategy"!
  3. Stories carry the culture and make the abstract concrete
    All the abstract stuff (like culture, values, and behavioural norms) comes to life with stories. Who understands exactly what is meant by "integrity" except through a story (with characters, a plot and an outcome)? Watch the "lights go on" when instead of talking about strategic intent, or vision/mission you paint a picture of the "Everest" we have to climb, or the "Comrades" we need to finish.
  4. Stories create our identity
    What do we tell ourselves about our organisation? What do we have to live up to or live down? What is the story of our future? (Usually called the mission or vision.) Are we "survivors"? Challenging the status quo? Creating a better world? A strong narrative can amplify events, just as a weak one can diminish them: our rugby world cup win in 1995 was a country-making event. Did 2007 feel the same? Many believed not...perhaps because we no longer identified as strongly with the "Miracle Rainbow Nation" narrative.
  5. See your story in your share price
    Stories are powerful forces in communicating identity to the outside world. Brands ("short stories" as opposed to "epic novels") have long been proved to be assets on companies' balance sheets. Hard nosed investors and fund managers, while rigorously analysing the facts, also look for a "good story" and often can find no other reason for an unexplained valuation gap.

We all speak "story"

Archbishop Tutu did it for South Africa with one phrase: "The Rainbow Nation." Obama's inauguration speech masterfully framed the challenges America faces with the great "story of America": where for over 100 years the hard work, courage and honesty of the ordinary man has triumphed.

According to scientists, "story" is in fact our (as humans) native language. It's hard wired into our brains from babyhood. Kids from as young as two respond to stories and make up their own as a way of making sense of their surroundings. (This may explain why as adults abstract concepts - like "strategic intent" or "values" simply don't resonate until we have put them in the context of a story).

Think about the points of conflict in your strategy? (Are you surviving; challenging the establishment; creating a better world?). Who are the main role players? What are the obstacles you face? What happens next? Who cares?

If all else fails, imagine you are trying to explain your corporate strategy to a three year old. Start with "once upon a time...." end with "happily ever after." You'll know what to do in between!

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