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Storytelling Makes a Change Powerful
Published on: April 14, 2023
Published By: Timothy Grayson

No. 2 in a series about Stories and Storytelling

Storytelling makes the world go round.

At its simplest, a story is a coherent set of events that move the listener (reader/viewer) from A to B. A very little less simply, that sequence of activity follows an acceptable internal logic. Ideally a story moves the listener in some (intended) way.

     That sure sounds like any change—especially transformation—I’ve ever worked on.

Your change is a story and your change management will be much more effective if you effectively tell that story. Storytelling is essential.

     The same situation actually provides two stories. When it’s over, it’s a history. In the middle of it, as most change managers and leaders are, that story is up to you. Your change story can be an adventure or a mystery or…Histories are good as case studies and morality tales. They are not the story of the change as it is happening, which is most important to us.

Storytelling is Making A Story Well Told

     Let’s break it down.

  1. There is a situation that is for one reason or another flawed. Maybe it’s inefficient; maybe it no longer “fits.” It might be long-standing or the result of some force that sets up the story (e.g., the merger, the Internet, etc.) This situation prevails until a moment of crisis.
  2. There was a moment of crisis for your story. Not necessarily in the sense of emergency, but in the sense of criticality. The force that set up the situation is definitely that crisis. For long-standing situations, it could just “be time” or another reckoning.
  3. At a moment of crisis something happens. It might be good; maybe bad. Either way things come apart to be reformed somehow. Ideally, the organization’s mind made a decision to address the situation and “crisis,” to act in a particular way. Hence the project and your change (or transformation).
  4. The resulting new path or journey has (will have) many new adventures. But you know how it is to end in some specific and desired new condition. That new condition—the resolution or target state—will be better. How this journey unfolds and the organization gets to the destination is the story we have to tell.

Episodes, Events, and Descriptions

     The coming change is the result of a project and its impacts. The changes (plural because we have to break down our overall change into specific “implementations” or “deployments” or “deliverables” or “training” or “development iterations” or any other, more comprehensible adjustments) are the steps we’ll take along the road. These steps are—or can be—episodes in our story. They are discrete and, in our telling, progress the plot and involved characters in small but meaningful ways.

     In projects (certainly in their plans) these episodes tend to daisy chain neatly, one connecting seamlessly to the next. In reality and in good stories, that rarely happens. There is definitely a common thread or theme to all the action, but stories and real life tend to move in fits and starts. Often there are time, place, and knowledge gaps between individual episodes. That’s OK because it is your story that reveals all.

Internal Logic

     No matter what, there must be an acceptable logic to the story and among the connections, relations, and even gaps between episodes. The characters (in your change story the characters can be people—the CFO for example; organizations, or other stakeholders generally) have to be motivated and progress on an explainable internal logic as well. This logic may or may not be the same as that which is driving the bigger story.

     In your change story, the story logic tends to flow on the basis of capitalist drives: higher revenue, lower cost, increased efficiency/productivity, innovation, competition, and so on. An alternative logic, most prevalent in the public sector, is human/social development on the basis of democratic ideals: freedom, impact, rights, responsibilities, fairness, the social contract, safety, etc.[1]

     This internal logic is not some Cartesian mathematical construct nor is it Aristotlean syllogism. It simply and reasonably answers the question, “Why?” It is the phrase following, “because…” To engineers and other more literal-minded folk, the looseness of this explanation may be troubling. But your change is not science—at least not totally. It is probably more art.

     When your change story answers the “Why” question, it does so metaphorically or analogously. The objective is to harness the individual and collective listener’s imagination and let it work out the details within the shape you have given it. (Pro tip: If your change is difficult and you have no exact precedent to follow, you are not applying science.)

     Let me make an example. There is no way that the voyage to the moon could happen without science. The rocketry, propulsion, telemetry, guidance, meteorology, and so on was essential for getting a capsule onto the moon and back. But it was art that combined those pieces into an epic voyage of discovery. More importantly, it was an artful story that got the nation (the world) behind it and put butts into all the right seats to make it happen.

The Goal is to Move People

     The primary goal of any change is to move people from doing one thing to doing another thing: from A to B. That much is clear and most change management instruction is premised on and geared toward achieving that goal. That goal can be achieved on the basis of making a valid case, providing the means, and encouraging or otherwise enabling the change.

     Underlying that move, however, is the need to move people to make that shift. This cannot generally be accomplished with mere facts and data. Generally because some people (yes, you, accountants and CFOs) are often significantly moved by very straight-forward financial arithmetic. These sorts of objective decision-makers can be swayed with “the numbers” or the bullets or…

     Most people do not operate that way. Frankly, even the objective CFO doesn’t operate that way fully. So if objective, naked facts and data and “arithmetic” doesn’t always or wholly do the job, what does? The story. The answer to “Why?” The engagement and embodiment of “hopes and dreams”, self-perception, cognitive biases is all best served by the story. Your story. The change story.

     When was the last time you cried at the presentation of statistics? at a financial analysis? How about at a soppy movie or poignant moment? Those who want to move people know they have to tell a story. As Sting once sang, “Poets, priests, and politicians have words to thank for their positions…”

Be Sure To Have Your (Change) Story Straight

     The bottom line is that all your tactics and strategies, all your methods for change management and leadership are critical. But for maximum effect, you absolutely have to weave them into a believable and compelling story that will capture the stakeholder audience and move them as a part of that story.

     Your change is a story.

     The Change Playbook is loaded with practical tips and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Check it out. Subscribe—even for the FREE membership to be notified about new posts and fresh content.


[1]   I suppose if you are the change leader of a religious organization, your story logic probably has a theological bent.

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