Keeping oral stories oral for better strategy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 29, 2016
Filed in Business storytelling, Strategy

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.

Oral stories

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:


  1. I get your point, but here’s an alternative experience:

    I was once able to get a huge company to quit doing its annual strategy reviews in 120-slide PPT decks and instead write an annual narrative that was backed up by a PPT deck with the charts and graphs.

    You are absolutely right: the process of word editing with a strategy group is crazy-making. However, that process actually speeded up decision making.

    The strategy team had been through this annual review process for several cycles and they told me this time around, key decisions were made in the room, rather than offline.

    It worked this way: in the old process, when VPs wrestled with conflicting priorities during strategy review meetings, they would not resolve them in the meeting. Instead, they would go offline to develop PPT slides that supported their view and brought them back to the next meeting. The resulting war of PPT slides was then sent to the staff to reconcile — which was impossible because no executive decision had been made.

    In the narrative process, the conflicting priorities were resolved on paper, leaving the executives no option but to give thumbs up, thumbs down, or provide different direction. The strategy review team left the meetings with concrete directives that then informed a new iteration of the narrative.

    True, there was needless word-smithing. I reduced it by reminding participants that we would not arrive at perfect wording in the room; it was my job to synthesize their reactions and return to them with a new narrative for review. After a couple of iterations, participants began to get it and to trust me.

    1. Thanks for your example Steve. Sounds like a great process for helping executives craft their strategy. It’s kinda of how we have done it for some years accept for one difference.

      We assume they already have a strategy and then apply our strategy story process to communicate it. Mind you we often discover that the story process uncovers a lack of clarity in the strategy and it gets reworked.

      Our aim is to have each executive tell the story orally at the drop of a hat, and in their own words. It would be great to come in after your process to work on the oral storytelling.

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