“It’s a little wordy, is that normal in your field?” was Heidi’s response to my first draft. Her tact doing little to numb the honesty. In some areas, volume is good: boxes or chocolate and length of holidays being two of them. In stories, it’s less certain, and, when it comes to organisational narratives, shorter is invariably better.
I’ve been working this week to write the story of my own organisation, SeaSalt, and it’s been harder than you might think: this is frustrating as, since i created it, you’d think i could just make it up. The problem is that we tend to create stories that sit within our own frame of reference: we write stories that make sense to us, use language we understand, refer to concepts that we have mastered, exist in frames that we shape. By their nature, our first drafts of our stories tend to be exclusive. Or sometimes they go the other way and become wildly patronising or overly simple. Getting it right is a matter of refinement, not luck. Sometimes you have to just work at it, to tease the meaning out of the fluff.
We use stories within organisations for many reasons: they’re used to create shared purpose and vision at times of change. We use them in learning to show us ‘the right way‘ to do something. We capture tribal knowledge in organisational stories, to codify and share it more widely or store it online. We use it at induction to teach people about who we are and what we hold dear. We use more social, less formal stories to discover how we feel, to coach and mentor individuals as they develop, to form and nurture learning communities and groups.
We assume our stories hide in plain sight, but it can be hard to tease them into view. We assume our narratives are shared, but they can be remarkably divergent: ask five people to share their recollection of an event and you’ll have five distinct stories, that maybe share parts of a narrative, but each drawing out their own strands.
We focus on those things within stories that are relevant to us, those things that fall within our experience or concern.
I had a job in a research library: we were cataloguing a collection of slides, early photographs of farms. I had a book of codes, each code relating to things like ‘thatch‘, ‘timber frame‘, ‘wagon‘ and ‘trees‘. I had to code each slide on the computer against those things i could see in it. In the days before Google, some poor soul would one day be doing some research and want to find a slide of a farmhouse with a thatched roof. If i hadn’t coded for ‘thatch‘, they’d never find my slide in amongst the hundred thousand other slides in the collection.
The trouble was, there’s just so much in a photograph and our interpretation is so subjective.
Take a photo that shows the whole farmhouse, but also the farmers family playing by the side of it. To a building historian or architect, the people are a detail, trivial, irrelevant. To a social historian, they are the centre of the focus. And to an archaeologist, the hill in the background with a Bronze Age hill fort on it may be all that matters. Half these things i wouldn’t even recognise, let alone code.
So we always view stories through our lenses: through our experience and interest, through our worldview and knowledge.
When we’re forming the stories we use in organisations then, our challenge is multifold: finding a clear story, recognising the filters that we apply, keeping it concise and coherent, making it relevant. It’s harder than we might think: how do i know? Because so many organisational stories are incoherent, rambling, inward facing and largely irrelevant to the audience. They’re important to someone i’m sure: possibly the marketing or compliance teams, or maybe the group of people driving the change project, but they may not be relevant to me, and if they’re not, then i’m not likely to relate to it.
Stories we don’t relate to will wither on the vine: stories we love will thrive. Stories that are authentic and relevant will be amplified: stories that feel fake and distant will fade.
In this space, process can be our enemy, whilst we think it’s our friend. Many organisations use processes to run multiple projects, to try to capture all the right information to make it comprehensive and relevant. But this results in filling in boxes, in writing stories by number, by template. We fill in the boxes, give project statements and purpose, learning objectives and metrics, but we don’t measure coherence.
Storytelling is an art, but one we can learn. We can combine visual and textual elements to help us tease out the strands. We have to write and rewrite stories to make them clear then, once they’re clear, we can share them.
Take sign-off: in traditional organisational process, this happens at the end, after you’ve written it, and then you broadcast what you wrote. In the Social Age, we are better served by iterative and co-owned writing processes. Work up your first draft, share it. Listen to the feedback and redraft it. I did this with the cover of the new book: shared a few versions, asked for feedback, explored what people said in follow up conversations and then chose. It was still my choice which cover design to go for, but it was informed by the community. The story was clearer because of it. And at the end of the process, Alex, the designer, said “feels like a team effort”, which was great, because that’s exactly what it was.
In these storytelling scenarios, the community is our team and we work best if we co-create the narrative with them.
Perhaps there are two stages to this: the first, to recognise that stories are powerful, the second, to realise we have to uncover and iterate them.
Look at organisations that use stories well: Apple choreograph their storytelling, integrate performance at their announcements and are consistent in their tone of voice and style. Amnesty International amplify other people’s stories, using their own integrity and authenticity to do this.
Whether we’re looking at change projects, learning design or leadership, stories sit at the heart of how we communicate: uncovering our stories, refining them, capturing the core narrative and sharing it effectively is a core skill in the Social Age.