Telling Your Story

April 15th

Leaders in a complicated, over communicated marketplace will need to focus on telling their stories in an increasingly compelling manner, that and to recognize that the audience is listening for a story about a success and the way forward, not another Information Age melodrama

Unquestionably one of the most striking aspects of my experience in teaching at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy was to watch the power of telling the stories that came from my experience in more than 3 decades of working on public policy concerns during times of stress and transformation.  Frankly, I had slipped into a pattern that’s familiar, especially in the business, government and academic, settings where I had worked, of taking the work seriously and sometimes ourselves even more so.  But it was stories that communicated.


And its not as though I had not been given fair warning.  In 2011 I had traveled to Wilmington to teach a class at the National Association of Corporate Directors advanced workshops.  My subject was the experience of telling the Board of the USPS that volume would almost certainly decline unless there were an unexpected change in the patterns that were already visible in  the markets that were being reshaped by the Internet.  But they didn’t believe me.

My story may have been believable from an analytic perspective.  They allowed me to put the forecast of decline into the Strategic Plan that we published in 2000.  But as Vice President for Strategic Planning more should have been expected of me than making the right forecast and publishing it.  The organization did not want to face the painful choices that would follow from accepting this view.  Multiple stakeholders were even more passionate in their rejection of the forecast of decline.  And to be fair, for at least 6 more years the trend seemed to be rising, not falling.  Only later was it clear that this was only a recovery from the decline that followed 9-ll.

“You needed a better story,” one of my director students told me after the session.

I remembered an interview that I had seen in the Harvard Business Review in 2003, (“Storytelling that Moves People, A conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee”, Bronwyn Fryer, June 2003.)  She asked a professional screenwriter and coach “why is persuasion so difficult and what can you do to set people on fire?”

His advice was that you have to unite an idea with an emotion.  “The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”  McKee explains that your goal needy s to be to harness imagination and the principles of a well told story.  “A story expresses how and why life changes,”  He explains that stories begin with a situation where life is relatively in balance “but then there’s an event – in screenwriting we call it the “inciting incident” – that throws life out of balance.  The story is the description of the protagonist’s experience with the crash when subjective expectations confront uncooperative objective reality.

The classes that I taught at Georgetown soon contained the stories that had shaped my perceptions of leadership and what it takes to lead change successfully.  I commited to finishing writing about what I had learned before I returned to communicating it and one of the benefits of doing that will be that now the stories will be included as well.

Including the stories also lends a sobering touch to recalling my experience.  If my story had given the leadership any compelling message that connected an idea with emotion, it had to have been a story that conveyed an ominous warning of pending disaster.  Perhaps that was appropriate.  But its not a story that you want to tell inadvertently, and it would have been even more important to have recognized that the story needed to be about the successful conclusion rather than the pending crash.


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