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Want to do great things? You need more than “communication.”

Today’s organizations are complex. And while the world around us is moving faster than ever, sometimes it feels like making any kind of change from within takes too long to ever keep up. Despite a commonly shared—though false—“statistic,” most change initiatives don’t actually fail. But that doesn’t mean many aren’t as successful as they could be [1].

When efforts fall short, most often it’s due to the lack of a clear, shared vision of the desired outcomes or lack of an organizational culture that supports change. What if I told you that you can overcome these obstacles using one of mankind’s oldest and most powerful skills?

We talk about storytelling a lot at The Frontier Project. Today, we’re going to explore just why this ancient skill is more essential today than ever. And what better way to do that than with a story?

The Story of Storytelling

If all of human history was detailed in a 500-page book, the first 483 pages or so would be a pretty uneventful account of an insignificant mid-food-chain primate. Then around page 484 things got interesting. We discovered fire. This enabled us to get more nutrition out of the food we ate, which helped our brains grow. This rapid cognitive revolution got us thinking new big thoughts and, critically, creating language to communicate them. However, unlike all other animals that use communication to describe reality, we were using language to create reality. We discovered storytelling. And so began our rise to rule the world.

Could storytelling really be that important? You bet. Stories are a unique form of communication. They convey more than just information; they create a unifying purpose that can mobilize collective action. In short, stories allowed us to begin cooperating. And by cooperating, we were able to truly become successful as a species. What started as stories told around a fire led to cooperative hunting, cities, landing on the moon, and Hot Pockets [2].

Why We Need Storytelling More Than Ever

So here we are on page 499 of Mankind’s Story. All of human learning is at our fingertips. Technological marvels occur with such frequency as to seem mundane. Sharing information is practically effortless, but, as you might have seen at your own organization, meaningful communication doesn’t seem to be keeping up.

How widespread is our modern communication problem? Only 13 percent of American workers strongly agree that their leaders communicate effectively. More broadly, only 33 percent are engaged at work[3]. These two statistics are not unrelated. 

When people can share common goals and feel like a part of a larger effort—when there is widespread understanding of exactly how an action or initiative supports the organization’s overall progress—they will remain emotionally connected to the cause[4]. How does this happen? Storytelling.

Our friends at McKinsey have studied this phenomenon extensively: “When asked what they would do differently if the transformation happened again, nearly half of respondents (and the largest share) wish their organizations had spent more time communicating a change story.[5]

The absence of story is an absence of purpose. Information isn’t enough. It takes more to unite people around common beliefs and goals and to foster the kind of cooperation that allows us to achieve truly great things. It takes storytelling.

How To Drive Change With Storytelling

Just to recap: your change initiative isn’t doomed to fail, and you can increase the impact of your efforts. How? By uniting your people around common purpose and getting everyone working together toward a shared goal. And how do you do this? With a story. Here are a few ways you can put storytelling to work for you.


1. Define Your Legacy

Every organization has a destiny. And whether it’s your impact on the world, how you do the work you do, or the culture you create, any story that will transform your organization needs to be rooted in a shared understanding of what your legacy will be. Not in terms of revenue goals or products sold, but the thing that will make you memorable. Humans didn’t achieve the impossible in the name of mediocrity. To help, answer this question: If someone writes a book about your organization in 100 years, what should the title to be? That’s the legacy that will shape your story.


2. Write Your Manifesto

No great story is built from the status quo. You need to write a manifesto to boldly declare the purpose and intent that will fuel your new tomorrow. For The Boring Company it’s a mission to end soul-destroying traffic, for Method Products it’s a culture shaped by their humanifesto, and for Patagonia it’s a commitment to do no unnecessary harm. When done well, a manifesto inspires employees and attracts future talent. For this, answer one question: If all 7.4 billion people in the world could hear you read one page about your organization, what would you say? That’s the story of your future.


3. Live Your Story

“Welcome to the most important work you’ll ever do.” That’s the screensaver you’ll find on your first day with John Deere, along with a stainless steel replica of the company’s original plow and a note from the CEO describing their mission to provide food, shelter, and infrastructure to a growing world. Transformative stories are more than words; you have to bring them to life with the power of moments and artifacts. Throw out the playbook for your weekly staff meetings and quarterly town halls and create an immersive set of experiences and artifacts to embody your story.


4. Don’t Be Boring

Most leaders forget that there is almost no demand for corporate communication in the world today. It’s why most enterprise emails go unread, intranet sites go unclicked, and internal brochures are ignored. Your media must compete with the content that employees already consume (usually while they’re at work). To really make your story stick, consider making a podcast as good as This American Life, video on par with Vice or Frontline, or a magazine that reads better than Fast Company. The only way to influence people is with content interesting enough to keep their attention.

You don’t have to do it on your own.

At The Frontier Project, we put storytelling to work for our clients every day. We have helped global organizations unify their workforce and drive the company forward using narrative-driven strategy. We have used storytelling to usher in complete identity transformations. No matter what form your story needs to take to engage your workforce, we can help.

If you’ve got big ideas. If you’re looking to unlock your organization’s potential, we can help you create and share a story to unify your people around a shared vision and getting them working together. Storytelling put a man on the moon. What could it do for you?

If you’re interested in Storytelling, we’ve got a Keynote for you.

Matt Johnson is The Frontier Project’s resident storyteller. In this keynote on his favorite subject he reveals the transformative power of story. Leveraging his experience as a published author and corporate storyteller, Matt explains how storytelling can be your bridge to a brighter future. Whether you’re an organization facing disruption, a team in conflict, or a person feeling lost in your career, Matt’s case studies and exercises will introduce you to the tools you need to write (and live) your new story. To book Matt for your next event, email live@thefrontierproject.com.

 

[1] Tasler, Nick. "Stop Using the Excuse 'Organizational Change Is Hard'." Harvard Business Review, July 19, 2017.

[2] Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker, 2015.

[3] Gallup, 2017 State of the American Workplace Report.

[4]  UNC Executive Development. "Why Change Initiatives Fail." Executive Development Blog. November 12, 2015.
https://execdev.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/blog/why-change-initiatives-fail.

[5] “How To Beat The Transformation Odds.” April 2015.
https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/how-to-beat-the-transformation-odds