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Storytelling as a path to change

How storytelling drives organizational change

Creating meaning, memories, and motivation

A good change management strategy has many components, including a solid stakeholder analysis framework, a network for creating and empowering change advocates, and feedback channels to measure adoption. Perhaps the most important and undersold element, though, is storytelling. There are three key ways that storytelling helps drive organizational change: meaning, memory, and motivation.

Tell it like you mean it

Many people say “I’m not a natural writer” or “public speaking doesn’t come easily to me.” But I’ve rarely if ever heard the phrase “I’m not a storyteller.” Why? Because telling stories is what people do. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have told stories as a way of creating meaning. Just look at the Bible: The world’s oldest bestseller is full of parables that have inspired people, Christian and otherwise, for centuries.

Make some memories

The human brain loves stories – telling them and listening to them. Science proves this out: Countless studies have shown that people remember information differently when it’s presented as a narrative, with characters, conflict, and resolution. A well-told story provokes emotion, lighting up different parts of your brain, which leads the memory to be stored and recalled in a completely different way than dry information learned by rote.

Motivate and inspire

Now we get to the good stuff: Using stories to inspire action. The best stories cause us to reflect on ourselves and the world around us – even if they take place in far-off places (say, a long time ago in a galaxy far away). Everyone wants to be part of a good story, and to see elements of themselves in the hero.

We don’t hesitate to nurture this impulse in our private lives, with our children, when we watch a movie, or when recalling a funny incident to a friend. But too often in a business context, we turn off that part of our brain. Let’s face it: storytelling is not always modeled and encouraged in corporate America. Instead you get jargon, uninspired cliches, and stock photos of smiling faces in business attire.

This sounds counterintuitive, and it absolutely is – why would you throw out one of the best tools in your motivational arsenal? Depending on the company size and culture, the CEO may be encouraged to tell their story, and get support from professional writers to do so. But even when storytelling is celebrated at the top, it can be seen as fluffy or even a waste of time when practiced by middle managers or individual contributors. As a result, most attempts to evolve corporate culture create the appearance of change without inspiring true transformation.

When you lack a central, compelling story, you may create the appearance of change without inspiring true transformation.

This is the story of how you become a better storyteller – and leader

So how do you author your company’s next chapter? First, you need to change it from a story about you and your goals to a story about the people you want to bring along with you on this journey. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for personal touches; genuine stories of personal growth and inspiration can be a great way to connect with your audience. But you do need to figure out which details of that story are most meaningful to people across your organization. Practice your story in front of diverse audiences, and watch and listen closely to how they respond. Which parts prompt questions? What anecdotes create a spark of recognition? Which phrases make people (subtly or not) roll their eyes and tune out?

To find the peaks and valleys of your narrative, look for points of confusion, curiosity, or even conflict.

You may already know the story arc you want to create for your company: where it began and where you’re going. But if you don’t have a compelling story to tell about that journey, you may find yourself walking there alone.

Ready to lead your company’s transformation? Let’s talk.

Jennifer Roth

Jennifer Roth is a senior marketing communications professional with extensive experience developing innovative strategies for informing, guiding, and motivating people. Her unique blend of creativity and analytics has created value for a wide variety of organizations, from mid-sized local businesses to Fortune 500 corporations.