Using Stories to Influence Change

By David Howells

Inspiring people to #change isn’t easy. It is generally accepted by experienced change operators that resistance to change is a part of the human condition. Traditional senior management thinking can be risk averse and many executive decision makers can also be constrained by past experiences. So it can often be the case that using a conventional management approach (providing good reasoning to do the ‘right thing’) is not enough to #influence the masses. Intellectual understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to behavioural change so to really engage with people and inspire change it is their emotions that need to be influenced not their intellect.

If you had just 15 minutes to address your organisation what would you say? Could you do it eloquently from the heart and would it be persuasive? What facts and figures would you present and how? Would you be able to get people on their feet in a rapturous applause or would they be yawning and ignoring you? Do you have a story that will help you get your message across?

Great story telling is a catalyst for inspiring change. It is gaining more recognition in modern business as bulging shelves of leadership books provide guides with how to go beyond static power point presentations; today there are even courses in ‘Story Telling in Change Management and Innovation’ taught at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and also at Harvard.

What makes this subject so relevant is that, unlike conventional rhetoric, powerful tales that resonate will unite ideas with emotion and energy. As Stephen Denning, former executive at the World Bank and author of “The Leaders Guide to#storytelling” points out, most executives – and particularly Change executives – are extremely sceptical about the usefulness of story telling because they operate from the particular mind-set that analysis is what drives business thinking. “Analysis may excite the mind,” writes Denning, “but it hardly offers a route to the heart.” Through good story telling you can harness the imagination of your audience to share your vision; you give them an opportunity to join you on the journey required to the realisation of that vision.

Screen writers and fictional authors know how to capture the attention of an audience and influence their emotions. By understanding and applying the principles of well-told story telling business leaders motivate people to do things differently, to work together and lead people into the future. Can you remember a particularly inspirational speaker? Was it a story they told that moved you? Can you remember why this was? How did you identify with it?

A good story teller will be able to describe life in terms of subjective expectations (personal desires, life objectives, business goals), and the reality in which we currently live. Perhaps there has been an event which has thrown everything out of balance and gives you your ‘burning platform’. In screen writing it is called the ‘inciting incident’.

This is easily translated into the business world because we strive for goals, have challenges to overcome and often have to deal with unforeseen dramatic shifts in circumstances . There is a key factor within effective story telling for business and that is of each story having a clear and relevant purpose. How will signs of success be recognised? If you don’t know this then your idea isn’t clear enough.

You might want to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone that will inspire your listeners to say, “I know this situation, I’ve been here”. Stories engage emotions, and emotions drive behavioural decisions. René Carayol has served on the boards of some of the biggest British and American organisations; from Marks & Spencer and Pepsi to IPC Media and the Inland Revenue. In this video, he says that “Innovators and leaders, they create stories… the stories can become the reality, and that’s [the] challenge as leaders.”

It is not news to anyone that leaders with a loyal following are able to clearly communicate their future vision and describe how to get there. Many organisations prefer to hide reality and inconvenient difficulties. Some of the best presentations I have seen which have inspired people to think and behave differently have been from leaders that have had the courage to address significant issues and barriers to change. They’ve addressed these hurdles up front and talked openly about how to overcome them. A lot of authenticity will go a long way to gaining trust and support.

The little stories of experiences within the company of a particular incident, involving real-life staff members, can be used to “bring to life” why the company holds to a particular value. Volvo have used this technique as a method to integrate the different parts of its organisation, creating a DVD and book that collects 35 stories of employees own experiences of working in Volvo and using them to highlight the values and objectives that they call “The Volvo Way”. Employees are encouraged to use these stories to support dialogues and group discussions within their own work groups on how they can integrate these messages into their work processes.

Stories that discuss how obstacles are overcome create real possibilities for people. Where has this type of change already happened, whether in your own organisation or somewhere else?

Not all stories have a happy ending, however if you are looking to inspire change with some positive outcomes and exciting possibilities I might suggest something interesting, worthwhile and dare I say audacious at the end.


i&iStrategic ManagementLeadership and GrowthPeopleProcess and Technology Change Management