When you see a poem you know it’s a poem.
When you see a screenplay you know it’s a screenplay.
Most people, however, have never seen an oral story written down. Probably because it’s an oxymoron. Yet there are times when it’s useful to write an oral story down. For example, when you’re helping a company create the story of their strategy.
Let’s look at the difference between oral and written stories and then I’ll describe a significant problem that can happen when you write down an oral story for a company.
First and foremost we talk quite differently to how we write and read. For example, when we speak we say things in short bursts.
When we speak /
We say things in short bursts. //
Yet we can write a sentence that is much longer and more elaborate than we would normally speak. Punctuation helps a reader but doesn’t go far enough for a speaker (more on this below).
When we talk it’s quite reasonable to repeat ourselves. We can say the same thing a few times and no one will give it a second thought. It gives us time to gather our ideas and emphasise our point. In fact repetition helps our audience hear what we are saying.
Repetition is spurned in prose unless it’s a literary effort of Joycean proportions. But in business writing it’s a no no.
And “it’s a no no” would never pass for business writing but we could easily and acceptably say it. We can speak colloquially but brows wrinkle when we write it.
Most of the time we are speaking we use short, simple words. When we’re chatting with colleagues and recounting what happened in the meeting we all just went to (editor, please replace ‘went to’ with ‘attended’), we use short, concrete phrases.
“Did you see Bob’s face when Bronwyn said we’ll need to create a new job role? I can see this being a problem.”
People don’t speak corporateez. Most people, that is.
We don’t typically say transformation, core competency, retrospective coherence (yep, I’ve heard that), strategic leverage, commercial sustainability, I could go on.
Now let me explain the problem that often happens when you try and write down an oral story such as the oral story of the corporate strategy.
When it’s written down it looks a lot like any other business document in that there are words in paragraphs but the writing seems overly informal and even naive. Things might be repeated and there are informal phrases all over the place. So the business language wordsmiths appear and begin to make it sound like a piece of business writing. I’ve even had footnotes added!
YOU MUST RESIST THIS URGE.
Here’s what I suggest you do.
First write the story in a format that doesn’t look like normal business prose.
Much like a poem, break up the story based on the short bursts we speak in. At the end of each line either insert a “/” to indicate a minor pause and the sentence just flows on to the next phase or a “//” when there’s a bigger pause. This is how experts in discourse analysis write conversations down.
The great advantage to this approach is that it looks different. Internal comms immediately thinks, “Whoa, what in the hell is this?” And you can share with them the difference between oral and written stories.
Let me know if you have ever had this challenge and how you dealt with it.
Earlier this week Shawn sent me an email. “You must see Steve Jobs: The Lost interview. It’s available on iTunes” (its the movie, not the radio show).
So, naturally I downloaded it and am halfway through it. It’s riveting. Jobs answers nearly every question with a story. When the interviewer talks about developing the first Macintosh, he asks “what is the secret of building a great product?”, Steve tells him that the secret of a great product is understanding that having a great idea is only 10% of the battle. The other 90% is getting a great team together who focus on content rather than process and understand that it never turns out the way you planned: it constantly changes and evolves and you need to make tremendous trade-offs. He tells this story:
We help lots of organisations turn their strategies into memorable and concrete strategic stories. In doing so, a key factor is ensuring its not a ‘Pollyanna’ story’. You know the ones…everything is upbeat, previous successes are emphasised, failures are not mentioned. Theses stories might be politically correct but risk being viewed as inauthentic or not believable.
I recently watched this Steve Denning video of his TEDx talk in late 2011 on the topic of ‘Leadership storytelling’. In it, Steve describes exactly the same concept in a very succinct way. He calls them ‘Titanic Stories’…”700 people arrived safe and happy in New York after their voyage on the Titanic.”
This story only works if two conditions are met: (1) listeners don’t know about the 1500 people who died on the trip and (2) you can keep it that way. As soon as either condition is not met your story, your strategy and your credibility will plummet to the icy depths never to be recovered.
The golden rule in business storytelling is ‘be authentic’.