During our recent work on a major strategy story project, we ticked off our priorities. We encouraged the company’s leaders to take responsibility for the story, as opposed to outsourcing it to a department or an external agency. We helped each leader clarify their understanding of the strategy. We talked about the necessity of including failures along with successes. Then, as we worked towards final approval of the story, we reminded ourselves of something we’ve come to understand over many such projects: the importance of staying true to the spoken word.
Our strategy story work typically lasts for a few months, matching the ebbs and flows of activities in a big organisation. The process begins when we talk with the executives about the strategic choices their company is making. We then gather the leaders together to collectively fashion the first edition of their strategy story.
As the strategy story emerges from the discussion, we are very careful not to write it out. The simple reason for this is that we have a tendency to agonise about the wording of a story when it’s put down on paper. We word-smith it to within an inch of its meaning and this just bogs down the whole process. It’s also missing the point of an oral story – we want something with a core message but whose exact wording will be chosen by the speaker to fit a particular context.
We start crafting the strategy story using the strong through-lines that emerged in our conversations, the threads that show a common understanding of the strategy among the executives. This gives the story a solid spine. When we have pulled together the story, we again gather the executives and tell it to them, listening carefully to their feedback. This is all done without a written version of the story in sight – up to this point, it’s 100% oral.
While our guiding principle is to keep the story oral for as long as we can, at some stage the company will want to formally approve the story. And to do this, they will want to see the written version. This is always the most difficult part of the strategy story process. Having put all the emphasis on how we speak, we now drift away from this and focus on how we write. What’s worse, it becomes about how people write in corporations. Think bureau-speak, jargon, generalities – all the things that work against a good oral story.
This lesson has been creeping up on us for some time. We have to reject the need for a written story and instead provide the final version for approval as an audio or video. Having to translate a story from oral to written form and back again just slows the whole process down. And it is an obstacle to each leader bringing the strategy story to life in their own way.
Let’s just keep oral stories oral.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: