Organizational Storytelling Workshop Series
Why is it so hard to communicate a great business idea? It can feel intensely frustrating when our ideas seem to fall flat. If it happens often enough, the tendency is to just throw our hands up in the air and blame “corporate culture” or sometimes even blame the listener for being willfully blind to the opportunity.
Most likely though, the problem is not the idea or the listener, or even the company culture, but rather the story you are using to frame your idea. Change your story, and you’ll change the way people listen.
Typically we think about storytelling as a way to frame the company or product story, and it is. But stories can also be enormously powerful tools for ensuring that the best ideas in your company get a fair shake. Here are some of the most common mistakes that come up in our organizational storytelling workshops, and how you can use stories to fix them.
You’re solving the wrong problem
Many ideas fail to compel attention because they are framed as the solution to a problem the listener does not care about. I see this in organizational storytelling workshops all the time. Someone pulls me aside and the conversation goes something like this:
I’m trying to get my boss to buy in to such-and-such idea and I want to use story structure, but I can’t figure out how to do it.
What problem is your idea going to solve?
Well, the problem is that my boss thinks everything is fine, but actually things are totally falling apart. She just doesn’t care that we are making mistakes/being inefficient/missing an opportunity. She is the problem.
Let’s pause right here, because this point is really important. This mindset is extremely unhelpful in storytelling. If you want your idea to get a fair hearing, you must never define the target audience of your idea as the problem. Think about it, would you listen to a story that makes you the villain? So the most effective story framework is one in which the problem being solved matters to the listener. This sounds obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Your story must solve a problem that the listener cares about.
To do this you must have genuine empathy for the position of the person you are trying to persuade. Start by imagining yourself sitting in that person’s exact place, and having all their particular concerns, hopes and fears. This is the entry point.
Let’s continue our typical conversation.
Assume your boss says yes. What problem are you solving then?
Our error rate is way too high, so we have to reprocess everything repeatedly.
See the difference? The problem isn’t the boss, it’s the error rate. NOW we have defined the problem in a way that is far more likely to get a hearing.
You’re not accounting for PITA (Pain.in.the.Ass)
People do not generally like extra work. So very often your idea isn’t getting through because while you are imagining all the possibilities, your listener is imagining all the work. Use your story to explain who is going to take on the extra load and why they might be willing to do it.
While you are imagining all the possibilities, your listener is imagining all the work.
Let’s continue the conversation in my imaginary, but typical, organizational storytelling workshop:
Once your boss says yes to your idea to solve the error rate, what happens next?
We renegotiate our deal with the vendor, completely update workflow, and retrain the team.
Sounds like a lot of work. Does your boss have anything else on her plate right now that would prevent her from doing all that work, even if she wants to?
Hmm…I can definitely handle all the process planning, because I already worked it out. That’s how I got this idea in the first place. And I can offer to train the team because I already know our process backwards and forwards.
You see where I am going with this. When you ask someone to make a change, even a very good one, you must account for how much of a pain it’s going to be to implement.
The victory feels too vague
Another ice pick in the heart of getting your idea a hearing is vague corporate-speak. Use simple language to make the benefit as clear, tangible and specific as possible. Here’s where you can bring in that data everyone loves so much.
For example, claiming you will reduce the error rate and increase productivity isn’t actually very persuasive. It sounds more like hope than proof. You will dramatically improve the likelihood of being believed by making your story specific and concrete.
Which of these two sentences sounds more believable to you?
If we change our process, we will reduce the error rate and increase productivity.
With smaller, more frequent shipments, we catch errors 3 times faster, and improve productivity by 22%.
You see the difference? Used wisely, data can support your story to make it feel more believable. Just remember that the data should support your story, not overwhelm it.
You’re hogging the glory
I know, I know you hate to give credit for your good idea to the person who won’t even listen. Sorry, this post is not about who gets credit. It’s about getting your idea a fair hearing. Do it by making your listener the hero.
In the case of the conversation we’ve been having, the most persuasive story is this one:
The boss is the hero who will test and prove a new method for reducing the error rate while improving production efficiency.
The villain is the error rate and overall inefficiency.
The employee is the assistant who helps the boss achieve this great result.
This story structure works because everyone wants to be the hero of their own story. Use it to give your idea the best possible chance of being accepted.
To help your story rise above the noise in our often over-stretched workplaces, you must make it feel like someone or something is going to change forever. And the person or team who is going to get the most benefit of that change has to be your audience, not you. Once you do that, you’ve given your idea a booster shot of story power no amount of data alone can match.