By Bob Leonard and David Ross
NOTE: This is the fifth article in our series about managing business in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world. With our ongoing Corona virus issues, the resulting recession, plus our developing climate crisis, VUCA is the new normal.
It is one thing to develop a great strategy, one that has the right fit with the environment that your organization is operating in. It is another to ensure that your stakeholders, internal and external, understand your strategy and are engaged. Have you ever listened to your senior management launch a new strategy over the space of an hour or longer… only to leave the launch wondering “what was that all about?”
That highlights the importance of having a compelling narrative that succinctly communicates your strategy. Stories fuel innovation. They hold the power to motivate and transform. In a VUCA world, organizations will only thrive when stakeholders connect with your strategy.
Executives wishing to sell their strategy to stakeholders have traditionally targeted the left side of the brain with logic. Research shows, though, that emotion is a much more powerful tool for influencing human behavior. Story is the best way to tie your business strategy to emotion.
The way you prepare your story requires more thought and effort than how you might prepare to tell a story at a party. Strategy stories often fall flat or sow doubts because they haven’t been constructed properly. Here are the basics for making your story interesting and persuasive:
Don’t start with the timeline beginning of the story. The event needed to hook your audience probably didn’t happen at the beginning. Build your story, event by event, emotionally not chronologically.
Have you noticed that movies no longer start with a crawl of credits? They open with action to involve you immediately. Engage your audience first, and then refer back to the past to communicate the contrast between ‘before your strategy’ and ‘after your strategy’. Even if people know your story will end with your strategy solving the problem, you can breathe life into the journey of why and how it’s made a difference.
Things go awry in the deployment of strategies. Here’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate transparency. If you’ve thought your strategy through, and vetted it with stakeholders inside and outside your organization, you know where the risks are. You know there’s potential for problems. Highlight them in your story. Show people that you’ve thought this through, you know where the dangers lie, and you have contingency plans to handle them. And it’s good storytelling. If your strategy story just relates a deployment without overcoming any obstacles… that makes for a boring story. These setbacks are opportunities to show your story of responsibility, remedy and revival. Stakeholders want to know that you don’t quit at the first sign of defeat. How many stories have heroes who had an easy pathway? Engaging stories don’t chronicle a straight line to success. What if Harry Potter easily vanquished every evil foe?
Your strategy must solve some kind of problem experienced by people. Personalize the story’s hero… by making her feel the pain addressed by your strategy. Make her real, so that your audience wants to know what happens to her. You are essentially giving your employees a greater sense of purpose and meaning by making them part of the company’s wider story.
Use stories to make your points rather than relying on platitudes. In fiction writing workshops, they call this “Show, don’t tell.” For executives, this means you have to avoid corporate speak; instead, tell stories about how your initiatives will improve the lives of customers, suppliers, investors or employees (depending on your audience).
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Don’t tell your audience what to do or feel, show the story so that your audience comes to its own conclusions.
Show the setting, the protagonist, and the conflict by describing the action as if it’s unfolding right now in front of you. For example, imagine you are the CEO of a Property and Casualty insurer. Due to our changing climate, it’s more difficult for your actuaries and underwriters to predict the risks of severe weather. The past does not equal the future.
So you develop a strategy to launch a Climate Risk Control Group to provide assistance with a range of loss mitigation and adaptation techniques in support of building resiliency, providing assistance in disaster preparedness planning, and delivering business continuity training. When you announce the new group, you could just state the facts… but what if you shared a story like this one?
“After a recent hurricane along the Florida coast, one of our field agents, James, had the difficult job of informing a local business owner, Kate, that her warehouse damage was not covered for storm surge. James has been working with Kate for years and knows she is one of the most hard-working, ambitious business owners in the area — breaking the bad news to her wasn’t easy.
Because Kate’s warehouse is located a mile from the coast, the underwriter, Christine, did not include that coverage in her policy. She made a completely rational decision based on past experience. In the past, storm surge had never traveled that far. The problem is the past is no longer our best guide about future risks.
As you can imagine, Kate was livid and worried. She wondered how she would pay to repair the damage and replace the lost inventory. James, who has always been passionate about “being there” for small business owners, was downhearted that he was unable to help Kate. Christine, the underwriter, felt that she failed at her job. In short, everyone experiences a sense of loss when we base our risk assessment decisions on past patterns. We need to find new ways to assess rapidly evolving risks.
How can we prevent those kinds of situations? How can we support our clients with coverage that is comprehensive and in line with our growing climate volatilities? How can we make sure that underwriters like Christine are supported with updated insights that reflect the reality of our changing conditions?
That’s where the new Climate Risk Control (CRC) group comes in. It’s designed to help prevent situations like this. Imagine the alternative. CRC climate experts would have taken into account that although one mile from the ocean, Kate’s warehouse is only five feet above sea level. Storm surge from a major hurricane can easily top 10 vertical feet. Topography shows that between Kate’s warehouse and the ocean there are few buildings, and no mangroves or other natural barriers. It’s mostly flat beach, roads and parking lots. Knowing that storm surge damage was possible, but not likely, Christine would have added a storm surge rider to the policy at a nominal fee. The CRC would have explained (in the policy terms and to James) the reasoning for the coverage.
You’ll be hearing a lot more from the CRC over the next few months. They’ll be rolling out climate training for all our agents and claims adjusters, and providing stats and research to help inform our actuaries and underwriters about evolving climate-related risks.”
Loading a story with technical terms and acronyms will cause your audience to tune out. Of course they’ll want to hear about cost and revenue projections, but don’t hobble your story with those. Deliver your stats after you’ve captured their hearts with a story.
Shorter is better. Strip away any non-essential characters, comments and concepts. Keep your story on track and chugging along so that your audience never has a chance to lose interest.
Your target audiences are sophisticated. They will immediately pick up on any false notes within your story, and they’ll react by tuning out and dismissing your assertions as suspect.
Make stories part of your culture. Stories are often the best way to communicate to stakeholders the progress (or hiccups) your strategy is experiencing, how well they are doing with delivery, and what they (and you) could be doing better. Lead with transparency, honesty and authenticity even when things aren’t going well. You’ll be rewarded with trust and connection.
Stories are one of the most effective tools you can use to gain the hearts and minds of internal and external stakeholders. Use the techniques we’ve outlined above to ensure that your strategy story grabs and holds attention, evokes emotion, communicates authenticity and generates trust.