When Good Stories Go Bad

We all have one—that friend who begins to tell you a story, and regardless of how interesting the story should be, he or she totally butchers it. You desperately try to cling on, but somewhere along the way your mind wanders… you start thinking about dinner/your sports team’s latest failings/that thing you’ve forgotten to do…and then you are back in the room—completely lost.

“That’s great!” you lie to your friend as you bury your face in your drink of choice. Everybody has a story; some people just suck at telling stories.

We’ve also all had that same experience at work. A leader is standing in front of a very swanky PowerPoint deck with graphs, charts, bells and whistles. And the content is very important—it’s about how your company/department/team will win, it’s a huge (yuge?) change—a transformation even. The leader is a “great communicator” they say. “When he speaks, people listen” they say. Yet 20 minutes in, you glance down your neatly arranged row and two of your peers are checking email on their smart phones. You suddenly realize you forgot to eat breakfast and wonder if anyone will notice if you sneak to the back of the room to snatch a company provided muffin that you failed to spot on the way in. Then WHOOSH, you’ve missed three slides—where was he?

Was it your fault for zoning out? Does this mean you’re a horrible employee? Probably not. Every company has a story; some companies just suck at telling their story.

Companies That Tell (Good) Stories See Higher Engagement

We’ve been speaking about the importance of engaging employees at work forever, yet global engagement scores have barely shifted in the last decade. We know people are engaged, they just aren’t necessarily engaged at work. We can do better! And it starts with getting really good at immersing your people in the compelling story of your business. But to do this, you need to ensure people don’t nod off, daydream or plan what they’re having for dinner while the story is being told.

Three Tips for Telling the Compelling Story of Your Business

Here are three tips to elevate your organization’s storytelling game:

1. Don’t use PowerPoint

I have a 15-month year old daughter. Needless to say she has never sat through a PowerPoint presentation (the lucky girl). But in all seriousness, we would never think about using PowerPoint to engage our kids in stories, and why? Because it’s amazingly boring.

We have an expression at Root: “There are three things that kill people; lead, asbestos and PowerPoint.” Whenever we say it, people laugh—and they laugh because it’s true. The only person the PowerPoint presentation really resonates with is the person who built it. PowerPoint has become a crutch for all of us; enabling us to layer on reams of data, graphs and tables. And however fancy you make the transitions and animations, you can be sure that most of the content will fly over the heads of your audience.

2. Personality alone won’t cut it

I speak with leaders all the time who tell me, “I don’t understand. I’ve personally told this group why we’re doing this initiative and yet they still don’t get it.”

We’re talking leaders with big personalities, who sparkle in one-to-one situations because they have that unique aura about them. Your leader’s personality and ability to communicate effectively is definitely a big positive, but when we’re talking about engaging the hearts and minds of potentially hundreds and thousands of people, that will only take you a fraction of the way.

If you think you’ll be able to scale important messages by having employees watch a video of said leader addressing another (often more senior) group—don’t do it! It’s like watching paint dry – regardless of your leader’s personality!

3. The greatest stories are the ones you discover for yourself

Remember that film the Sixth Sense? [If you haven’t watched it, consider this your spoiler alert!] As you likely recall, the entire pay-off of the movie was its twist. Well unfortunately for me, someone told me the plot line, including its defining twist, before I watched the film. Can you imagine how dull that film was for me already knowing Bruce Willis was dead?

So why is it so unenjoyable to be told the ending? Well, the majority of us like to go on a voyage of discovery. It’s the same reason we start a novel at the front rather than the back, or why we don’t like to study filled in crosswords/Sudoku puzzles. Being given the answer without discovering it ourselves takes away the enjoyment of it all.

We tend to forget this principle at work, and metaphorically give employees the answers, tell employees the twist, reveal “who done it”…and then ask—or more likely, expect—them to be engaged. Is it any wonder the message doesn’t land?

Helping employees discover for themselves how they connect and contribute to key initiatives is critical. Self-discovery enables stories to connect to people’s emotions, makes them memorable and it will help your people become more engaged inside your office walls.

Every Good Story Has to Come to an End

Most organizations spend the majority of their time formulating change initiatives, visions and strategies and only a tiny proportion of time thinking about how to engage their people’s hearts and minds in bringing it to life. The way you tell the story of change will be the difference between your initiative/strategy succeeding or being DOA. If you are interested I’m more than happy to provide some best-in-class examples of great organizational storytelling—just send us a message at info@rootinc.com.

August 29, 2017


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