A strategy your people can’t believe will fail.
So how does one craft and share a believable strategy?
First, people want to know the company’s big choices and understand why they were chosen.
For example, imagine you’ve chosen to replace your core information system. This significant decision will affect most employees and cost $100s million. But Why? This is where we need to tell a story. I will tell you why this works below.
It might go something like this.
We commissioned our core system back in the 90s. It was state-of-the-art. We led our industry, won awards and, as a result, enjoyed tremendous growth.
But over the years, our competitors caught up and sped past. And because they built their systems more recently than us, they could employ more flexible technologies. Now they’re more nimble than we can ever be.
For example, late last year, we needed to change some core data to meet a customer’s need. It took a month, and the change resulted in an outage for a week. Apart from the embarrassment, it cost us dearly.
And if you ask our people what they think about our current system, they will tell you they’re miserable. It’s ugly, antiquated and stops them from serving their customers.
We need to replace our core system now.
Makes sense, right?
That’s because stories are easy to process. They make sense faster and have built into them a logic of causes and effects we all understand.
And if something is easier to process, absorb, or make sense of, it’s deemed truer, smarter and more believable.
Let’s expand on some of the claims I just made.
Simplicity makes you look smarter
Have you tried making your writing sound smarter by switching out simple words for fancy ones? It’s a strategy often employed by undergraduates. And it’s wrongheaded.
In 2006 Princeton researcher Daniel Oppenheimer showed 71 students complex and simple versions of the same text. The students rated the authors of the complex writing as less intelligent. The harder it was to read, the more it was judged as coming from a less intelligent author.
Complexity makes you look dumb.
We absorb stories faster
The more digestible your strategy, the stronger your team’s belief in it will be. That’s because we believe in things that are easy to understand and match our experience.
Stories are absorbed faster than opinions or points of view.
Three researchers from the University of California illustrated this point in 1980.
They compared the memorability of narrative texts (such as the story of Noah’s Ark) with expository texts (such as an encyclopaedia entry on armadillos). Twelve texts were rated by students for their narrativity, familiarity and interestingness.
The **narrative texts were read about twice as fast as the expository texts**, yet they were remembered twice as well. Revealingly, there was a high correlation between narrativity and the amount of information recalled.
If we recall the events, it feels truer
When we hear a story that contains events we remember, we judge the story as true. The more events we recognise, the more truthful the story feels. We also retain the story because we have partially constructed our own narrative version.
So when crafting a strategy story, it’s essential to select events that are known to the audience.
An unhelpful habit I notice in companies is the desire to frame all events positively. For example, if the company forgets to invest in its people, the comms team want to call this a period of learning consolidation. It’s classic Orwellian doublespeak. And audiences can see it a mile away.
If the memory of the event was negative, you get greater belief by remembering it as negative. No one believes a story where a company was first good, then great, then amazing. And it’s also a boring story. We like ups and downs in our stories. You are much better off being authentic and lean into missteps, mistakes and maladies.
So imagine your leaders have learned how to tell the strategy story in their own words using their own examples. Making your strategy stick is off to a good start. But it doesn’t stop there.
We continually test the strategy’s truthfulness by what happens over time. The leadership must organise a process of finding and sharing examples of strategy working. A feeling of progress is highly motivating. Harvard professor Therese Amabile demonstrated this effect in her bestseller, *The Progress Principle*.
A few years ago, we helped the CBA embed the attitude of having an impact on customers in their retail bank. We trained 1,200 bank managers to find and share stories of customer impact at their in-branch team huddles. The outstanding result came from the workers talking about what the customer impact stories meant. What was significant in the story? How were people able to do what they did? That discussion enabled everyone to do more of it.
Process fluency is what scientists call this ease with which we absorb and understand something. If it comes easily, then it triggers intuitive thinking, and we immediately get a gut feeling about what we’ve learned. If it’s simple, clear and connects to our previous experience, we judge it as true.
As Oxford University philosopher Richard Swinburne puts it, “… simplicity is evidence of truth.”
This post grew out of a conversation with my business partner, Mark Schenk.
Amabile, Teresa and Steven Kramer. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.
Graesser, A.C., K. Hauft-Smith, A.D. Cohen and L.D. Pyles (1980). ‘Advanced Outlines, Familiarity, Text Genre, and Retention of Prose.’ _Journal of Experimental Education_, 48: 209–20.
—, N.L. Hoffman and L.F. Clark (1980). ‘Structural Components of Reading Time.’ _Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior_, 19(2): 135–51.
Jacoby, Larry L. and Mark Dallas. “On the Relationship between Autobiographical Memory and Perceptual Learning.” _Journal of Experimental Psychology_, vol. 110, 1981, pp. 306-40.
Oppenheimer, Daniel M. “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” _Applied Cognitive Psychology_, vol. 20, 2006, pp. 139-56, doi:10.1002/acp.1178.
Swinburne, Richard. 1997. *Simplicity as Evidence of Truth* (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press)
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: