3 Storytelling Elements That Successfully Drive Change

3 powerful lessons leaders can learn from storytelling that will help them to effectively drive change in their organization.

Leaders face an ever-growing number of challenges leading their organization in today’s faster-paced, increasingly interconnected world. One of the more common issues a leader has to address is dealing with change.

In most cases, when we talk about change, the focus is often on the process – of what steps we need to implement to ensure we achieve a successful outcome. And yet, what we fail to take into consideration is how using the power of storytelling can help us to ignite effective and sustainable change within our organization.

To illustrate what I mean, allow me to share this story of Mary, a fellow team leader who I worked with a few years ago.

At one of our weekly team leader meetings, Mary talked about a plan she had shared with the organization’s senior leadership about a new change initiative. As Mary described the details of her proposal, she pointed out the various benefits it would create for the organization in the upcoming years.

It was clear to everyone around the table that Mary had not only done her homework in conceptualizing this change initiative, but that she was also very passionate about her proposal.

Now, normally, when someone proposes any kind of change initiative, people tend to fall into one of three groups – one group that almost immediately loves the idea, another group that takes a more guarded wait-and-see stance, and the final group that actively resists it either because they don’t agree or because they’re concerned about what unexpected issues this change will give rise to.

But as I looked around at the various team leaders, I didn’t see supporters, naysayers, or those taking a more neutral, cautious stance. Instead, what I saw was a complete lack of interest in Mary’s proposal, something that became all the more apparent when Mary asked if anyone had any questions and was met with vague shrugs and silence.

On the surface, Mary’s idea wasn’t overtly good or bad, so why did the other leaders around that conference table react to her change proposal with such indifference?

While we might think the issue is tied specifically to the technical aspects of her change initiative, a closer look at how Mary went about presenting her proposal demonstrates a failure to consider three fundamentals to effective storytelling and how these elements can be powerful devices for driving change in your organization.

1. Craft a simple, memorable message of what you’re trying to achieve
As a writer, I enjoy watching movies and TV shows that create complex storylines that slowly unravel and evolve as the story progresses. When it’s done right, it allows for both a deeper look inside a character’s motivations, as well as creating a more rich experience as the viewer delves further into this imaginary world.

Of course, the problem with complex storytelling is that it can also lead to convoluted plotlines, out-of-character moments, and outright contradictions where established limitations are conveniently overlooked because the writers ended up painting themselves into a corner.

When the latter happens, it’s often because the writers get too caught up in their own ideas that they overlook the more important aspects of storytelling – their audience and the message they wish to leave them with.

And this was the first mistake Mary made in her presentation – she was so focused on trying to demonstrate how thorough she was in preparing this proposal, that she lost sight of one of the most important elements to fostering support for a change initiative – your vision needs to be clear, memorable, and provide context for why we’d want to be a part of it [Share on Twitter].

In other words, by trying to cover her bases to show all the different ways the organization could benefit from her plan, she not only ended up muddying her message, but she left her colleagues uninspired about why they should care about helping her to push her proposal forward.

That’s why it’s important for us to remember that to drive change, we have to craft a message that’s easy to understand, memorable and inspiring [Share on Twitter].

2. Leave empty spaces to allow others to insert themselves into your change initiative
Whether they’re writing drama, mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, or some other genre, one thing the best storytellers know is that it’s critical that you create scenes that are open to some interpretation.

In some cases, it can be in how a conversation or an end of a scene is left open to interpretation as to what will happen next. In others, it can be more subtle in how a character will react to something not with words, but with a certain glance or look.

It’s a powerful vehicle for storytelling because it encourages the audience to invest themselves in the story – to put their own spin on what happened and where things will go from there.

If we go back to Mary’s example, we can see that one of the reasons why she got no feedback from her colleagues was because she didn’t leave us any room to add something to the proposal; that all Mary really wanted was not our input and advice, but simply our approval. And that left people with little opportunity to feel a sense of ownership in the proposal and consequently, why Mary’s idea was met with little interest or enthusiasm.

That’s why when it comes to motivating your employees to not only support, but champion change initiatives in your organization, it’s important to remember that leaders shouldn’t confuse creating clarity with removing spaces for people to speak their minds [Share on Twitter].

And this reveals the second critical lesson we learn from storytelling about how to promote change in your organization: people invest in change when the focus is on getting them involved instead of selling them on our idea [Share on Twitter].

3. Create near-term goals framed within a long-term vision
One of the things every writer knows is that if you’re going to retain your audience over the long run, you need to create some form of a hook; something that’s going to motivate people to stay invested in tuning into your show every week, to picking up and finishing your book, or to reading the latest entry in your leadership blog.

Part of that hook requires that while we create this notion of a big payoff in the long run of sticking with it, there is also some tangible benefit the audience gets in the here and now. Something that reminds them of why they’re invested today and why they should continue ‘tuning in’ as things move forward.

This balancing act requires that we look not only down the long view – towards what we hope to achieve over the long run – but also what we gain in the near-term. Of course, that value will differ in terms of what the writer gets and what their audience gets from this partnership between creator and consumer. But there’s nonetheless a clear benefit that both of them gain from investing in this dynamic both in the near and long run.

And this was probably the most significant piece missing from Mary’s proposal – all of the benefits she inferred we could attain through her change initiative were set years in the future. She didn’t provide or demonstrate how her proposal would help her colleagues with the issues and challenges they faced today and will face in the months ahead.

So it wasn’t surprising to see how many of them saw it as a nice idea along the lines of a pipe dream than anything with practical and tangible benefits in the here and now.

And this is what those who successfully champion change understand – that it’s not simply about the better tomorrow that your vision might give rise to, but about how it will help improve the way we live and function today.

And therein lies the last lesson we can learn from storytelling about how to successfully champion change, namely that near-term goals allow us to celebrate progress, and clarify the path we need to take going forward [Share on Twitter].

In the end, Mary’s proposal garnered some interest from the organization’s senior management, but that was about as far as it went, no doubt because there was little interest and support demonstrated by the other team leaders. And so eventually, Mary’s plan fell by the wayside as other issues presented themselves alongside the day-to-day objectives.

Looking back, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened had the organization followed through on putting Mary’s change proposal into action. But what her example helps us to understand is how effectively leading change is about more than the processes and steps we deploy.

It’s also about the narrative we create and how it serves to inspire those we lead to commit the best of themselves to helping transform what was once just an idea into our collective future going forward.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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