Presentation Skills News
To Lead, Tell A
10.12.09, 12:20 PM
Storytelling has always helped people deal with change. As
civilizations ebb and flow, stories are the essential tools
that help us calibrate our humanity, rally our spirit and
thrive in crisis. They help us remember who we are and imagine
what we can be.
Lucius Cincinnatus was a Roman leader who came to his
nation's defense and then spurned a dictatorship and returned
to his farm as soon as he had saved Rome. George Washington
knew and loved Cincinnatus' story, and so did many of his
countrymen. Having led the fledgling U.S. through storms that
nearly tore the country apart, Washington returned to his own
farm, possibly his greatest act of leadership. In so doing, he
struck a profound blow for the republic, sending a clear
message that the leaders of the new country could not be
Washington was widely compared to Cincinnatus. He became the
first president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an
organization of Revolutionary War veterans who honored the
comparison with Cincinnatus. America drew on the story of the
Roman general as we draw on the story of George Washington.
Stories are the fuel cells that store our shared resilience and
ideals. We draw on those fuel cells in times of crisis.
Corporations need culture-shaping stories just as nations
do, because stories can be much more than entertaining yarns.
They can be engines driving real change at the highest
A recent Gallup Management Journal article, "Four
Disciplines of Sustainable Growth," suggests that identifying
and highlighting key moments in corporate history "creates the
right heroes in your organization. If you want to understand
the culture of Great Britain, look to its heroes, myths and
legends. Each of these war stories, retold in countless history
books and classrooms, captures the spirit of 'determination in
adversity' that the British so prize in themselves. By studying
your best performers, you will gather the raw material you need
to tell the right stories and create the right heroes."
In 1988, two major banks, Fleet and Norstar Bancorp, merged.
Initially their cultures clashed brutally. A solution was found
in their history. A centuries-old portrait was discovered that
showed Norstar's founder holding a letter addressed to the
founder of Fleet. One of the men, it emerged, had helped free
the other from a British garrison during the American
Revolution. The founders had been dear friends.
The story behind this portrait was told to management,
employees, trainees and business prospects, in magazine
advertising campaigns and in a 17-minute documentary. It gave
both banks a sense of shared ancestry and helped them build a
sense of shared destiny.
If the two banks had approached their merger armed just with
PowerPoint presentations and lists, they couldn't have
engendered the kind of morale boost and cultural harmonization
that led to smooth integration and future growth. The
PowerPoint shows would have focused on the wrong things. Slides
crammed with bullet points listing all the analytical reasons
why the merger was terrific--resources amplified, revenue
amplified, assets amplified, etc.--could be nowhere near as
compelling, or as capable of effecting change within a
workforce, as the story of a portrait was.
Here are the three basic reasons why businesses need stories
now more than ever:
Reason No. 1: Stories help companies rally
and persevere in times of crisis and preserve what's essential
during times of change. They are the most effective way to
communicate how companies have overcome difficulties in the
past and will overcome them again.
Reason No. 2: Stories are cost-effective.
They build on an organization's experience, drawing on assets a
company owns but hasn't made the most of.
Reason No. 3: The business world has
shifted too far in the direction of the analytical at the
expense of the cultural. In a recent New York Times
review of Justin Fox's book The Myth of the Rational
Market, Paul Krugman observed that the American financial
system had allowed itself to be almost entirely shaped by
academic and financial experts committed to ever more complex
mathematical instruments and models. Math was exalted over
memory and judgment. Look where that got us.
Brilliant mathematicians will, of course, always be
essential to business. But companies need culture and values
just as much. And culture and values are preserved and passed
on through stories.
Research in cognitive psychology has shown that people are
22 times more likely to remember a story than a series of
bullet points. The business consultant John P. Kotter points
out in his book A Sense of Urgency that "neurologists
say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than
for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered
far longer than any slide crammed with analytics."
Engaged employees don't simply collect a paycheck. They
believe in their companies, and that makes them better
producers and corporate citizens. You get this level of
alignment and enthusiasm when a community of employees shares a
powerful mythology in its hearts, rather than a laundry list of
numbers in its heads.
Christian D'Andrea and Adam Nemett run the Idea Engine
at The History Factory, which designs story platforms for
organizational messaging for companies and countries. To find
out more go to www.historyfactory.com or
Presentation Skills News