It’s time for the annual company summit. Team building activities, community service projects, a delicious formal dinner, and surprising entertainment has been planned. Now it’s time to think about your keynote speech.
As CEO, you take pride in recognizing those who work hard to grow your business, so you decide to focus on an important organizational core value—speaking up even in the face of dissent. You personally feel this value creates an organization that is innovative and risk taking. Yet how can you speak about this value in such a way that your staff leaves the summit feeling energized, empowered and passionate about their work? What can you do to create the most impact?
You’ve read about storytelling being the best way to impact organizations. You know that it’s not just about story time, but that there is even science behind its effectiveness. You want to give it a try—but how do you even get started?
Following the How-to’s of Corporate Storytelling, you decide to dive right in.
Identify Your Point and Find a Business Story to Illustrate
You’ve already identified the point of your story, yet do you have a story to tell? A young woman from a few years ago comes to mind. She was junior on her team and took her position seriously. Her team had been working on a new product for months, barely maintaining budget. When the product was ready to launch, this new employee found a flaw in it. She really struggled with her next step because if she told her team, the company would lose money. The flaw isn’t fatal to the product, but definitely lowers the quality of the outcome. She didn’t know if she should speak up or not.
You choose this story because it centers around one character—which studies have shown to be more effective than a story about multiple people.
First, Begin With the Middle
With this story in mind, it’s time to work on the middle, which holds the conflict and the immediate results after the conflict. You give some thought to the pinnacle moment and what comes next, to write something like this:
The night before the launch, Jessica was the last one to leave, since her role in this project was assistant QA. She’d tested the software hundreds of times, but now in the final stage, she wanted to spend just a little more time on it. She congratulated her team as they left for the night, and buckled down to use the software as though she were a small business. When she went to record the cost of her order, Jessica realized that the receipt could not be created in various currencies. Sure, she could open an app on her phone to figure out the conversion rate, but one of the main features of this product was its ability to take care of all accounting needs easily, without the need of any other applications or products. This was a major flaw.
Jessica was stunned and had no idea what to do. The launch was in the morning. There was an event, and a slew of customers who had already signed up to use the software. She knew that working out the coding for this problem would take at least two more months. Sure, the product still worked, but should they make it better? As a junior on the team, she didn’t want to cause the company to lose time and money. Then she remembered one of the reasons she was drawn to the company in the first place—one of its core values was speaking up in the face of dissent. She knew what she had to do.
Jessica put together an email with the bad news, and called her supervisor even though it was 11:00pm. Her supervisor was exasperated and hung up to call the head of the department. Jessica knew they were both headed in to the office, and she was beyond nervous that she was going to get reamed.
The Beginning of the Story Comes Second
After you nail down the middle of your story, it’s time to write the beginning. It’s important to make the introduction of your story, and the description of characters as interesting as you can. You want listeners to be able to see the character involved. Think about who Jessica was before this story. Where did she come from? What does she look like? Give Jessica’s character depth, in order to create genuine engagement. Start with something like this:
Years ago, our open source software product was just an idea. That idea turned into a reality due to a very innovative and dedicated team. The development process had some bumps, but as you know, the end result has been game changing for the industry.
One of the team members who comes to mind is Jessica. She was new to the company when the product was in its final phases of completion. Jessica had just moved to New York after finishing university in Atlanta, a place where her Ukrainian family immigrated to in the eighties. She was so excited to be in a new city, and ambitiously landed a QA assistant job with us by her third week living in the city. Though her position was entry level, you could tell by Jessica’s posture that she took her role seriously, and was poised to learn everything she could.
Jessica and her new team were able to bond quickly due to the amount of time they put into developing the new, open source, accounting software. Two months after she started, they had finally finished their product and were not only excited to get some sleep, but really excited to see their software in action, which they hoped would help small businesses cut costs enough to survive the tough economy.
Lastly, it’s Time for the End
There is one piece left of this story—the end. Keeping in mind that the end of the story provides a resolution of the conflict, and shows the lessons learned, turn back to your story of Jessica and draw it to a close with something like this:
Her superiors arrived, looking exhausted, haggard and upset. She held her breath as they approached. What happened next was an outpouring of gratitude. They were impressed with her diligence and assured her that she just saved them from losing credibility, which was more important than money to them.
At the next day’s product launch meeting, the head of Jessica’s department delivered the disappointing news. He also made a point to publically thank Jessica for her bravery in stepping forward as a new member of the team.
Jessica’s decision models one of our organizational core values. Speak up. Every time. Even in the face of dissent. Don’t fear backlash or dismissal. Jessica is still with the company and is now the head of her own department. She’s in the audience today, just like you, and represents all of your courage and diligent work. I thank you for that.
Working on your story from inside out helps get the ball rolling. But also, it creates a structure within which you can focus on the important elements—your point, character development, the conflict, the resolution and lessons learned.
So what do you think? Could you write a compelling story now? Have you struggled with this in the past? Please share your stories or roadblocks in the comment section below. Or shoot me send me an email and find me on Twitter.