Telling your organization’s story

March 13, 2014 at 12:11 pm Leave a comment

“Tell me a story.” When I was growing up, this was something I said almost daily. I was surrounded by adults, some of whom were great story tellers. My favourite stories were the true stories of their own youth, some fifty years ago. My story-telling neighbours were not “movers and shakers” in the world, but their stories gave me new perspectives and shaped who I became as an adult.

Like people, organizations also have stories to tell, and others are eager to hear those stories. The audience may be employees, customers or clients, shareholders, potential funders, community members or taxpayers. Stories should be geared to their audience, just as my neighbours kept my age, vocabulary and experience in mind. Here are some key considerations in telling your organization’s stories.

The story’s purpose

While I’ve always loved stories for their own sake, I value the learning that often comes with them. I gain a new perspective on some aspect of life, or knowledge that I couldn’t gain from direct experience. My neighbour’s stories introduced me to a time when people lived in sod huts on the prairie and got their water from wells they dug themselves. Stories may inform, explain and/or influence. They can create a bond of understanding and appreciation between storyteller and audience that improves public relations.  What is the end you hope to achieve with the audience for your story? Begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey would say.

Structuring the story

Every story needs a beginning, middle and end. Good beginnings make people want to read or hear more. Some examples of compelling beginnings include

  • A problem that kept good things from happening
  • How things were once different than they are now
  • How a person, set of values or event made a difference

In a good story, things are different at the end than they were at the beginning. The change may be internal, such as understanding something about oneself or another person or group. Or the change may be external, such as growth or financial success of an organization, a new direction, or greater efficiency, customer service or engagement.

The best stories engage the listener or reader to come along for the ride. Your audience should be able to picture what happened. The middle of your story must include essential facts or events without which the story is unclear or confusing. But it should also not include so many facts and details that the listener or reader is overwhelmed and tunes out. Although a good story puts events (including the reactions to them) in more or less linear order, life is not linear. Many people and groups play a role in an organization’s story and you may need to include “meanwhile” statements for the story of organizational transformation to make sense.

The end reflects the story’s purpose. It states where the organization is now in terms of status or values as a result of the process or events in the story.

How is your organization special?

Every organization is special or unique in some way, often as a result of its values.  Storytelling highlights important values that guide your organization’s decisions and actions. The story’s audience may not be aware that they share these values with your organization. In organizational storytelling, values are a part of the key message or “moral of the story.” The facts of what happened must be described in a way that supports the audience to grasp this key message about the organization. In the story line, the organization (or its leadership) makes choices based on vision and values. The options chosen in the story should not be obvious or ones that every organization would be expected to make. They also may not be ones that the audience expects your organization to make (e.g., choosing social responsibility over profit or customer needs over efficiency).

When you hear the tone

Storytelling differs from a report by virtue of its tone. Reports are formal and impersonal; passive voice is common. By contrast, stories are informal in style and, even if written, have a conversational tone. All actions have clear actors, but we are also given insight into the thinking behind the actions.

Vocabulary may be adjusted to match audience characteristics. Jargon—and acronyms—are left out unless they are in daily use by your audience. My own trick for setting the right tone is to imagine that I am telling the story to my grandmother. Relevant photos, drawings and infographics can also enhance meaning and make the story more engaging.

Ultimately, a well-told story builds understanding and connects the storyteller to the reader or listener in new and profound ways.

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Entry filed under: Management, Social Media. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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