The importance of stories

12 July 2022

In everyday life, stories are how we make sense of things. 

Stories create context.  Stories create a frame of reference.  Stories tie things together and show how the pieces fit.  They’re alive, organic, and convey a sense of the whole.  Stories have the power to remind you who you are, why you exist and why you choose to behave the way you do.  This is true of our personal and professional lives.

In everything you do you are influenced and shaped by both the internal and external stories you create and are exposed to, most of which are so much a part of your daily experience that you don’t even notice them.  In this sense, you can view all stories as both personal (you are always writing your autobiography—the story of your own adventure) and collective (you work out your story within the broader story of your family, your society, your community, your workplace).  You affect and are a part of the unfolding story around you, and the story around you includes you and affects your evolving story.

Stories as a business leader

So, stories are much more than once-upon-a-time fairy tales or a recounting of your holiday adventures; they are an integral part of everyday life and of the fibre of every organisation. Your business pitch, business plan or value proposition is a story.  So, too, is your budget, workspace design, employee behaviour patterns, organisational culture, and customers’ experiences.  You are called on to craft and tell the story when you set the agenda for a meeting, when you explain to a customer how an issue is being resolved, and when you interview someone for a position.

Why is it that, if you are like most people, you can talk passionately about your kids, your childhood, the holiday you recently took, or the teacher you had when you were in year 7, but assume a different persona when you tell stories within the framework of your work? 

Why would you have a different portrayal process—a different way to tell your story—when you are talking at home or with friends then when you are at work?  One reason may be fear of judgement where you perceive a lower level of risk with people you know personally than with people you work with, so you hold back on being your true self.  Another reason might be self-editing where you effectively adopt a different persona at work because you feel your behaviour with friends and family is inappropriate for the workplace.  Whatever the reason, you must strive to convey the same confidence and conviviality you have in your personal life in your workplace.

Why is this important?

Businesses are a collection of people coming together to collaborate for a common purpose.  How effective the group is at collaborating is determined by the degree to which the collaborators agree on why they are collaborating.  A significant part of your effectiveness as a leader is directly related to your ability to discover, tell, and connect people into that essential story. Your effectiveness as a context-definer is directly related to your effectiveness as a storyteller. Therefore, as a strategic leader, you have the responsibility for the effective articulation and embodiment of the essential organisational story and must be the guardian of that story. To change the essential basis of your organisational story is to change a fundamental defining characteristic of the organisation—is to change the essence of the story itself; to change the iteration of your organisational story is to change its strategy—is to change its form.

Communicating effectively has less to do with the volume (as in loudness) or volume (as in quantity) of the effort, and more with how well the connection is made. The purpose of communicating, in other words, is two-fold:

1. To find common ground.
This establishes a basis for collaboration. This is the glue that connects people together. To ‘be on the same page’ is to be in the same story; to share a common perspective; to have a mutual understanding.

2. To obtain feedback.
This allows people to coordinate their efforts within the common ground. To act within a story is to belong; to have a place; to have a sense of identity; to contribute.  Effective feedback mechanisms are the central focus of your organisation’s (infra)structures.

Telling your story as an effective leader

Given the central importance of how understanding and working within a common story is to the overall effectiveness of every organisation, it is not surprising that effective leaders spend the majority of their time reminding people of and connecting people to the essential organisational story.

As an effective leader you must act as the Visionary Evangelist: articulating and embodying the vision/mission/purpose/values of your organisation. You constantly explore new avenues through which the vision can be expressed in a way that people can make better sense of things. You are also the Relationship Builder: gaining the willing support of the members of your team and the full support of people and groups with whom your team interfaces and collaborates.

To summarise…

Your first responsibility as a leader is to create understanding about your intent as a business leader and the intent of the business you have created. Understanding is achieved when people find a common story—a story that not only makes sense to them but one in which they can make a personal connection. 

The most powerful stories convince the mind and connect with the heart. They are both logical and passionate. They are rational and emotional.  They are apparent and they are symbolic.  They are explicit and they are tacit.  They create context, and they create direction.

When your story achieves all this, you will have a focused and committed team and a successful business. You will also have a brand which when you retell the story to the customer should create a strong emotional connection to them and give you the opportunity to demonstrate your values by bringing them to life in the story.