Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Illuminating visions

Use this type of story to create a powerful glimpse of the future – but don’t be too specific. Future stories are one of the hardest types to get right, simply because the future is so uncertain, so difficult to anticipate with any degree of accuracy. Therefore, keep the story vague-ish and metaphorical.

Orange’s advertising slogan: ‘The future’s bright, the future’s Orange’ is suitably appealing and vague at the same time. It means anything you, the listener, bring to it.

According to Stephen Denning (The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling), future stories come in different versions, as described below.

Informal statements

Intentions or predictions articulated by senior leaders, these tend to have the effect of changing the behaviours as others adapt to the new expectations.

Plans

These stories concern activities that will be carried out over some established future period. They deal with costs, benefits, timings and other pragmatic issues. They do not lend themselves to particularly gripping storytelling, though they are undoubtedly narratives.

Pre-mortems

A plan has been made and its authors have become attached to it. A pre-mortem is a mechanism for breaking the emotional attachment so that a clinical, analytical eye can assess the plan. The story is set in the future: the plan has failed. Why did it fail? Participants now use their creativity and know-how to assess what problems may occur to disrupt the plan’s smooth running.

Business models

Set in the present and near future, a business model explains the ‘theory of the business.’ As a narrative, its central concerns are whether the story hangs together and whether the numbers add up.

Strategies

In its simplest form, strategy is the story of how our business is different from those of our competitors; more systemically, how do all the elements of our business cohere in systems relationships within the organisation and beyond into the external world.

Scenarios

These are set further into the future than the above and recognise that many things, expected and unexpected, may occur in an uncertain and changing world. What could these be, and what kind of impact will they have on our organisation, our markets, our world?

Visions

At their best, these are expressions of a common or shared goal; not how to get there, but what the world will be like when have arrived. The best visions implicitly or explicitly include a deep sense of values and of purpose, and a shared recognition of the common good.

Requirements

  • Make the future as general and vague yet as compelling as possible.
  • Leave enough space for listeners to fill in their own details.
  • Ensure all key players are included in the story, even if only hinted at.
  • Understand the present situation and the forces that have created it.
  • If at all possible, set the story in the near future.
  • If not, use multiple scenarios rather than one brave prediction.
  • Where possible, find examples of how ‘the future has already happened’.
  • Keep it simple and metaphorical.
  • Use evocative, vague language rather than details: for example, ‘I have a dream ...’
  • Consider playing with the time line. Look back from future to present; from present out to future; from present back to less good past. Create the impression that the journey is inevitable.
  • Make future stories appear as true and realistic as possible.
  • Link future stories to the listeners’ existing world views.
  • Walk your talk: demonstrate the desired future in your own personality and way of acting and being.

Two well-known and widely-quoted examples of great vision stories are Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream...’ speech, and Winston Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches...’ speech. Note how both conform with many of the requirements above.

Both speeches appear simple, even conversational, and their language is everyday. Vision stories at their best are beguiling. They take a lot of skill to craft and express, but that should not prevent you from attempting to add this type of story to your skills set. Simplicity and poetry are high order skills and very satisfying to achieve and to hear.

Example

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream...

Example

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if...’

Vision statements

Most organisations’ vision statements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. They’re imposed from the top by leaders who fail to demonstrate the high aspirations expressed. No wonder work forces become cynical. How different the culture of an organisation can be when the whole community buys into, shares and embraces the company’s goals and vision.

Example

An old story about JFK expresses this well.

Visiting Cape Canaveral in July 1962, he’d met all the high-flyers: the astronauts, the top scientists, the administrators, and the top brass. Walking back to his limo along a bright, gleaming corridor with shiny floors and spotless walls he came across an elderly man with a mop and bucket. Kennedy stopped and politely asked: ‘And what are you doing here, sir?’ ‘Mr President,’ responded the cleaner, ‘I’m doing exactly what everybody else is doing here, I’m working my butt off to put a man on the moon’. Kennedy, they say, was impressed.