Early 2009, Sonia Aplin was facing a challenge. As the Internal Communications Manager for Ericsson Australia and New Zealand Sonia was tasked with advising the senior leadership team on how best to communicate the new corporate strategy.
The challenge for Sonia and Ericsson was two-fold. She knew that for the strategy to be successful, employees needed more than to be able to just recite the new strategy – they needed to really believe in it and understand how their work contributed to the organisation’s success.
The other challenge was that the latest Employee Engagement Survey showed two concerning facts. The Leadership Communication index was at 57 points (compared with the Ericsson Group total of 73) while Strategy Awareness was at a moderate 66 points. A critical success factor for the Ericsson strategy depended on improvement in both these areas. Sonia and her HR colleagues had a goal to increase both those measures by 3 points….and anyone who works closely with employee opinion surveys will know that this is easier said than done.
During this time, Barack Obama was the hot topic. Being a communications specialist, Sonia was more interested in the way he communicated as opposed to his politics. What she noticed, as well as other commentators, was Obama’s effective use of story. So that triggered Sonia’s research into storytelling. What started with a Google search, ended with a tender process and working relationship with us to deliver organisational storytelling workshops to their top 80 leaders.
Sonia along with the Leadership & Culture Manager went to the executive team with their recommendation. To take the leaders through a 2-day program. The first day was designed to ensure understanding of the new strategy and the desired behaviours associated with that.
The second day was our organisational storytelling workshops, which would give them the practical business skills of storytelling to engage their employees and clients in the strategy.
They were tentative at first…..we are talking about taking storytelling into a male-dominated, engineering firm, but their courage was rewarded. The executive team supported the approach and every single member of the team, including the CEO, attended the training and continue to encourage and role model the use of organisational storytelling throughout Ericsson. 97% of the participants agreed it was relevant to their role with 91% saying it improved their effectiveness as an influencer and leader.
Leadership Communication Capability, increased by a staggering 18 points.
So did it work? Sonia states “Anecdotally, yes. The use of stories in team meetings, presentations and formal and informal communications is obvious and is having a real impact. Another measure of the success is that the Australian and New Zealand Communications team won the Ericsson Global Award for Best Strategy Communications, with storytelling being cited as the point-of-difference. So that was something we were all very proud of and we are now working with our global colleagues to bring storytelling to their organisations.”
But what about the tangibles…the key measures of success? Increasing both Leadership Communication and Strategy Awareness by 3 points. The subsequent Employee Opinion Survey showed that Strategy Awareness increased by 11 points and Leadership Communication Capability, increased by a staggering 18 points. That is what we call a success story.
This would have to be the number one question leaders ask when they use a story. “Did it work? How do I know it worked?’ We all want to know what success looks like with storytelling.
I love the elegance and simplicity of Noel Turnbull’s measure of success with storytelling. ‘Success looks likes two things – when other people start to repeat the stories and when people smile sincerely. That’s why you tell a story’.
Of course people won’t repeat every story you tell – only the memorable sticky ones get this extended lease of life. That is in storytelling the gold standard! So it still comes to you in a room with your audience wondering…did it bomb? In that common scenario building on what Noel says trust your intuition. Look around the room when you are narrating your story. You can always sense the level of engagement in the room. One of our leaders described it as ‘It felt like there was a spotlight suddenly shinning on me and and for that minute I had every one’s rapt attention’.
But this is harder said than done – we are often our own harshest critics. Another option is to ask someone you trust. Prep them for it and say ‘I am going to be using a couple of stories can you please look around the room and help me gauge the response to see if they worked’. This person might also pick up the informal chatter after when people talk about your stories and give you the feedback you crave. They can also help to validate your expereince or provide another perspective or some fresh insights.
Good stories also have a long tail. We have some clients who thought their stories didn’t work and 6 months later someone told them very casually “I still remember the story you told us about customer service ‘. Or they get a repeat request out of the blue when someone says “John I really think you should share that story on innovation you told us in last year’s forum!” And poor John had been wondering all that time if his story had worked.
Of course if you were hoping we would give you some hard measures of success and are disappointed please feel free to check out our Ericsson success story, which does just that.
Yamini Naidu interviews Noel Turnbull former journalist, public relations consultant and adjunct professor in communications at Melbourne’s RMIT university.
Yamini Naidu: What is your definition of business storytelling?
Noel Turnbull: I think it’s narrative and making sense of things. I suppose what a story does in a corporate sense is to construct stories about the culture. I think stories construct a narrative that people can relate to but stories construct people themselves as well – their personalities and their lives are really an on going story and whenever you talk to someone you are constructing part of your personality
YN: Where have you seen business leaders use business storytelling well?
NT: James Strong when he was younger and first at TAA used storytelling very well – he used a story about customer service. The thing that depresses me is that, and this is partly the fault of the public relations industry, there is not a lot of good examples these days of people telling stories, partly because of the way language is debased in its use. Don Argus is good at storytelling and John McFarlane at ANZ told stories and his successor, who seems to be totally different in personality, is telling different sorts of stories about Asia and opportunities. John McFarlane was telling stories about discovering yourself and by discovering yourself you will be better at customer service, while Mike Smith is presenting stories about Australia’s engagement with Asia and creating a different narrative for the bank which conveys the strategy as a story.
YN: What did you mean when you said PR people are responsible?
Don Watson is quite right in what he says about the debasement of language, but there have been a lot of people before him, like George Orwell. I think what happens is business people, scientists, academics get so hung up the jargon that they set out to ‘obscure reality’. Whenever a PR person, whether inside or outside a company, sits down to write something on change management or financial results they start digging into that obtuse ugly language, instead of telling the story. I actually think people, when they see or hear that language, can see through it and that it is bs. I don’t think you have to write in a terribly stylish way but you have to have spare simplicity and colour things with anecdotes. As the world gets more complicated we lose our sense of anchoring. Stories help us not only make sense of the world but also teach things – parables are good examples. Harold Evans of the Sunday Times taught people to do simple headlines with this story. He told of a man who was going to set up a fish shop and tells a friend ‘I am going to set up a fish shop and want some advice on the sign I need. I’ve got this terrific idea of a big sign that says ‘Fresh Fish Sold here’. The friend said are you sure that is the sign you want because you don’t need the word ‘here’ as it is this shop, you don’t need the word ‘fresh’ as you won’t be selling old fish, you don’t have to say ‘sold’ as it is obviously a shop, so all you need on the sign is ‘Fish’. When you try to teach someone about writing a compact headline and go through all the stuff they need to know it’s very complicated but when you tell them that simple anecdote, you begin to see how you can communicate something simply.
YN: People get storytelling intellectually, it’s works so why the fear? What is holding business leaders back?
NT: I think a couple of things. Firstly they are frightened of showing a bit of themselves, as when you start telling stories you are inevitably revealing something of yourself and business leaders are taught to be very controlled. Also while a lot of business leaders are very smart they lead quite isolated lives, they travel at the front of the plane, work out of big offices rarely get on trains and trams so don’t experience the sorts of things that ordinary people do. There is a wonderful cartoon from Bruce Petty in the 1960’s that illustrates this. He drew a group of businessmen sitting around in a luxurious club and one of them is smoking a cigar, this is obviously a 60’s type thing. One of them turns to the other and said ‘I don’t know how we can waste billons of dollars sending a man to the moon when the entire world is crying out for company tax relief’. If I say CEO’s are out of touch and they say how do you know. I tell the anecdote of the cartoon and they get it.
YN: When business leaders use storytelling they want to know what success looks like? How do I know it worked?
NT: Success looks likes two things – when other people start to repeat the stories and when people smile sincerely. That’s why you tell a story. It’s much better to tell a story then tell a joke. How many business leaders you see begin with a joke that some one writes for them. It’s become axiomatic that you never begin a speech without a joke. The success is do people enjoy listening to the stories, do they keep it going by repeating it? Where I worked many years ago a story was told over and over again where one of the managers at one of the plants was giving a talk to the staff about the bleak outlook and tough times, with advice like work harder and smarter and finished with asking for any questions. One of the staff members said ‘I am surprised you said that as the CEO was reported in last week’s Financial Review as saying we are headed for a record profit’. That story stayed in the company as an example of, if you are going to share information, be honest as people have other sources of information.
YN: Some final words of advice for business leaders and what are some pitfalls to avoid?
NT: I think the first thing is to make sure the stories are relevant because if they are not relevant they fall down with a terrible great clang. You need some trusted advisors and trusted counsellors to try them out on. The second thing is to try them at home – your kids and partner are not a bad judge of whether it’s authentic and makes sense. Another thing I think is that people should write their stories down. I know there is a difference between the oral and the written, but writing it down in the simplest way as possible imprints it on the brain better. Most people can’t tell if something makes sense unless it’s on a piece of paper. You need to practise it – it’s a bit like acting. Clive James, in the latest volume of his memoirs talks about the difficulty many people had being spontaneous on his TV show. He remarked on the exception of Joanne Lumly who has always fantastic. As he says: It takes a great actor to be spontaneous.