As 2020 begins, many leaders will be confidently presenting new strategies and most people will be wearily dismissing them. There’s a story behind this common disconnect. To download a PDF version of this article, click here.
Mind over what matters
On a rainy Seattle afternoon in 2015, I watched a small group of Microsoft employees trying hard to avoid eye contact with their General Manager onstage. He had just rehearsed the new strategy launch and was expecting feedback. Instead, an awkward silence filled the eighty-row HQ venue. From stage-left, I saw the GM impatiently tapping the wooden podium. Soon, the bright cover slide timed out and went dark, finally prompting a brave programmer to raise his hand: “To be honest, it didn’t really connect. I mean we’ve had these types of reorgs before and …” The GM interrupted, eagerly recounting the new structure and scrolling to the strategic pillars. To his surprise, these confident assertions only led to more hands going up and the echoing of more lukewarm sentiments.
The final verdict came when an HR manager found a slide showing a very similar restructure from six years prior. I witnessed bemused colleagues gather in a huddle around her screen, giggling. After some encouragement, she made her way to the stage, laptop in hand, to prove the point to the deflated GM. He sunk into the podium, clutching its sides.
As the employees filed out, the Chief of Staff gave the Microsoft communications team a resigned nod as if to validate why we’d been called in. Unsurprisingly, the closed-door leadership-team debrief that followed was not pretty. They had spent months developing the strategy and appreciated the value of every word. Unfortunately, no-one else seemed to.
This scenario is not unusual. Leaders plan in methodical ways, using efficient corporate language they feel they own and which they incorporate into weighty documents. However, when it comes to communicating a strategy, most efforts fall flat. The disconnect occurs because developing a strategy is primarily a rational thinking process, while communicating a strategy primarily involves human connection. Leaders are often heavily invested in the creation part, with comparatively little effort spent on the communications side. This is a travesty given what’s at stake – the very success of a strategy relies on people at all levels ‘getting it’ and being clear on ways that they can personally contribute.
In one of my first projects as a young strategy consultant, I witnessed this disconnect cause an Australian client to unintentionally spend $400K … on lunch! My firm was contracted to develop a strategy for entering the Asian market. So, many smart consulting minds got to work and three months later we presented a sixty-page deck titled ‘Strategy Story’. There were lots of nodding heads in the meeting room overlooking Sydney Harbour. The happy COO then took us out to celebrate at a restaurant facing the Opera House. But when we checked in six months later, he wasn’t smiling. The COO sheepishly confessed the strategy had gone nowhere. Although it was the right approach, when presented to the board and a range of managers, it had gained little traction. The $400K in consulting fees had essentially bought little more than a good lunch.
In hindsight, our months of late-night spreadsheet work stood in contrast to the few hours we spent writing slide headlines to communicate it. Our mistaken assumption was that presenting a logical flow of facts and data would be enough to win people over to the strategy.
What lies beneath
It’s not just a question of effort, though. The communications team may put together a full program, complete with an offsite launch event, slick executive presentations, messaging toolkits, engaging materials, roadshows and more, but the result can still be underwhelming if there is no compelling story beneath. Crafting an engaging strategy story that can be retold and personalised is the foundation of any meaningful communications effort. It provides a blueprint that can then be coloured and textured to suit different channels, audiences and time frames.
A word of warning, however: a good story can’t be limited to beautifully written prose; it also must be easy to retell, so that it can spread and take hold. In 2017, our US brand agency contracted a top New York copywriter to produce a strategy story for a healthcare client. He came up with an elaborate metaphor of a feisty boxer, fighting diseases, backed by stirring language. When I presented it to the CMO, her response was sobering: “Great writing, but no-one will be able to share it and I don’t need another pamphlet for my bookshelf.”
Communicating a strategy rather than merely presenting it means telling a strategy story that operates at two complementary levels. First, there’s the high-level narrative framework that takes the audience on a journey from one point to another. Second, there are the detailed human stories that make abstract concepts relatable and create an emotional connection.
To his credit, the Microsoft GM realised that such a change was needed and we set about finding the underlying story.
From here to where?
We began by watching a video of the launch rehearsal. At one point, the GM waded deeply into corporate-speak territory: “If we’re going to create lifecycle value, a key pillar is to Elevate the Customer Experience.” He then rattled off related initiatives without context, backed by a token diagram showing all the benefits.
Audiences tend to greet assertions like these in a sceptical way and will start reaching for their phones. They prefer to be taken on a journey that illuminates why a strategy was chosen and why they need to change their way of doing things. A journey involves movement from one state to another, propelled by the why. It may be a shift in direction, a new way of doing things, the changing role of an organisation, or the pursuit of new value propositions. A narrative framework allows this movement to happen smoothly.
There are multiple narrative frameworks to choose from depending on the intention. For example, one seeks to create connection and credibility, another is designed to demonstrate value, while a third helps counter negative perceptions. In sharing a strategy, a particularly useful framework is what we at Anecdote call a Clarity Story, which provides meaning and inspiration. At a high level, it begins with a deep appreciation of where the organisation is coming from. Momentum for change is then introduced through various challenges and opportunities that raise the stakes and need for action. This sense of urgency drives the story towards the new strategy and a movement from one state to another. Of course, no story goes exactly to plan, so pitfalls need to be addressed before an enticing future emerges that draws the audience in to play their part.
The Clarity Story structure, which keeps the focus firmly on the why, was employed by my Amazon communications team in 2018 as we helped a customer executive prepare to present at a major event in Las Vegas. She had led a digital transformation in the emerging nation in which she worked, focused on eight pillars. Now she planned to share all eight, in detail, with 10,000 audience members. But pillars are not a journey. We had to find one in the way her team tackled the nation’s connectivity challenges, which had stunted medical access, education and growth. This why created an urgency in shifting her team’s role from being largely operational to become leaders of the connectivity drive. It gave the pillars meaning, yet they were still only touched on briefly. The real interest was in the obstacles her team overcame and technology’s impact on the lives of people. It was an engrossing human journey that gave context to the technical details.
Over the rainbow
The Clarity Story is a powerful structure, but it is rarely followed in practice, even if the title slide reads ‘Strategy Story’. One of the most common pitfalls for executives is the temptation to launch a new strategy accompanied by ‘rainbows and unicorns’, meaning everything will go well now that the new pillars have been handed down. The problem is that this ignores existing organisational narratives and bypasses any concerns, removing a sense of conflict from the story. Recall the deflating evidence of the six-year-old restructure announcement that suggested the Microsoft GM’s strategy was just another one of management’s periodic cycles. Unless anti-stories like this are addressed, they will prevail over any new narrative. Tackling anti-stories head-on is actually an opportunity to create suspense for the audience; you announce the strategy, then raise potential obstacles, before building credibility that you have a way to overcome them. The back-and-forth ride generates excitement and interest.
You can’t beat entrenched anti-stories with facts alone. Instead, they must be countered with other stories. In the case of the GM, we found a story from his early Microsoft days. One night a customer called him in a panic. The GM’s team had spent weeks individually coding functions, detached from the customer. The functions tested well separately, but on a live platform they started conflicting and greatly undermined the user experience. The GM brought the whole team onsite that night and by necessity they worked in an interactive way, getting direct feedback from the customer. By early the following morning they had resolved the problems, leaving the team elated and the customer with what they actually needed.
This experience sold the GM on the importance of everyone having an eye on the end customer. And hearing this story, the modern-day audience could see how this belief lined up with the new restructure announcement, countering the cynical view that it was just a passing management whim. The GM would end by naming the customer, now the CIO of a large Microsoft client. Anecdotes like these are not just ‘nice to have’; they help the audience to personally connect with the story.
The use of narrative structures to shape a journey is infinitely better than executive assertions from on high. However, they don’t necessarily move or inspire people or create personal ownership. This must come from awareness of the second complementary level at which story operates. Hollywood scriptwriters seem to magically connect with their audiences, but we don’t all have time for film school or budgets for high-tech visual effects and musical scores. So how can we create personal connection in a practical way, at scale?
The answer lies in combining a narrative framework with tangible, human examples that bring a story to life—anecdotes. Take the anecdote of the GM’s learning from his early Microsoft days. If he spoke in general terms about the experience, it would lend some credibility to his belief in the new customer-focused structure. But the emotional impact would only emerge once he shared the specific anecdote of working through the night with a customer. Our emotions are not stirred by data or abstract concepts or generic organisations. Instead, we respond to practical examples of events that have happened to real people.
We’ve observed this to be true in practice, even for clients in the most data-driven tech companies in Silicon Valley. Anecdotes make the abstract accessible when told in a story format, complete with time and place, characters, a sequence of events and something interesting or unanticipated. That said, unlike a story that we may share with a friend over lunch, we need to be intentional about the anecdotes we choose and ensure they have a clear (business) point.
Anecdotes also allow us to tailor communications in highly personalised ways to resonate with a specific audience. For example, at one point in his presentation, the GM wanted to emphasise the need for Microsoft’s software cycles to move faster. So we collected examples from account managers to support this narrative. A single customer anecdote about a loyal CTO lost to a competitor with quicker software updates was far more memorable to the sales team than assertions of cycle times. Likewise, an anecdote about a manager’s thriving career under the new software cycle resonated with HR over any dry messaging around the ‘people benefits’. The GM was soon armed with dozens of anecdotes that could flexibly be used at different points in the framework to bring out emotion.
Collecting anecdotes is not simply an exercise for a one-off presentation but rather turns a strategy story into a dynamic, ongoing, ‘living’ narrative. As events unfold and challenges emerge, new anecdotes demonstrate the various triumphs and tribulations involved in executing the strategy. All employees, from executives through to front-line staff, can continuously pull relevant anecdotes from the growing story library to bring the journey to life. For example, the practical meaning of ‘Elevate the Customer Experience’ is not stuck in time but evolves based on the anecdotes used. In Quarter 1, the anecdotes could emphasise a better understanding of the customer, while in Quarter 2 the emphasis may transition to anecdotes about offering better self-serve options. In this way, the story library builds ongoing waves of interest as a strategy unfolds. It also shapes a culture of storytelling, particularly when the sharing of anecdotes is embedded in reward and recognition systems or part of performance management.
Finally, a living story must be one that is actually being told throughout the organisation. While the overall narrative and anecdotes may be written down for reference, the oral telling of the story is what counts—across different roles, regions and functions. Everyone should put their own mark on it and emphasise the parts that are relevant to their audiences as the story cascades. The Head of Marketing in New York may highlight the brand implications of the story, while a Retention Manager in Sacramento will find anecdotes about how a customer account was saved. Likewise, an HR manager will tell a thread of the common story that goes deeper into the people side, while a Risk Analyst may share a version that highlights the need for compliance and the dangers of complacency. It’s through the oral telling that the common strategy story becomes personalised, as the teller’s own words and anecdotes resonate with the audience.
Step back, then step up
The day of the new strategy launch arrived. Backstage we noticed last-minute scribbles on the first page of the GM’s script. This was a cause for concern, but there was no time to investigate as he stepped up to a full house. The scribbles turned out to be a spontaneous opening anecdote. The GM shared the story of the disastrous launch rehearsal a few weeks prior. He revealed his surprise at the strategy’s reception and described how dejected he had felt. It was a brave, authentic opening that signalled he cared about what he was going to say. Having won the audience’s attention, he then proceeded to tell a compelling story filled with rich anecdotes that took them on a journey. Halfway through the presentation he put up the reorg slide from six years earlier, again to audible giggles. But this time the GM launched into his anecdote about his Microsoft team from earlier days, countering the anti-story head-on.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the story was the future state. After seeing the power of anecdotes, the GM had asked his executive team to sit down with individual team members and map out what the new strategy would mean for them personally. Now, as he spoke of the future, he invited some of these people onstage to share their specific anecdotes. These were captivating, tangible pictures of the future that provoked the audience to explore their own contributions. When the GM finished, there were no awkward pauses, just applause and a lot of excited chatter. However, the true measure of the story’s impact came six months later when we were again called in to prepare for the GM’s town hall meeting. To our delight, we discovered the existence of a vibrant story library with over eighty anecdotes to choose from!
Anecdote recently launched a Story-Powered Strategy™ offering based on a decade of developing strategy stories for companies around the world. It involves working with leaders to craft their story and then running story skills training, so that people start telling the narrative in their own words—complete with engaging anecdotes. We also focus on helping clients build tagged story libraries, so that behaviours change and the strategy story becomes a dynamic force, moving the organisation from one state to another.
As we begin 2020, many organisations are in the midst of planning new strategies. Our sincere hope is that this year, no-one will have to sit through any more soulless strategy presentations, and that a focus on human connection prevails. It comes down to a choice: once a strategy takes shape, leaders can either step up on stage and use logical assertions to present it, or step back first and prepare a strategy story that actually communicates it.
To find out more about Story-Powered Strategy™, contact us at email@example.com.
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About Paul Ichilcik
Paul Ichilcik is a Principal at Anecdote. He is an expert facilitator and story consultant, having worked with C-level leaders across the globe to bring strategy and transformation efforts to life. Paul is a former management consultant and, prior to Anecdote, he worked in the US, in executive communications roles for Amazon, Microsoft and a San Francisco brand agency.