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Fire Up Your Organization through Storytelling

“Symbols, dramas, stories, vision and love–these are the stuff of effective leadership, much more so than formal processes or structures. When you involve people, they feel ownership and perform up to 1,000% better.”
Tom Peters, A Passion for Excellence

The speed of change in today’s world is so disorienting, people are struggling to maintain their equilibrium and sense of well-being. In times of chaos, and especially when basic needs are threatened, strong leadership is more important than ever. Because people are looking to the workplace now for all their needs–professional development, social activities, on-site health care and child care services–strong leadership is especially critical. Corporate leaders need to reassure employees that they will continue to receive the support they need, even as the organization continually adapts to the chaotic marketplace so that customers’ rapidly changing expectations can be met.

Communication is the key to accomplishing this goal, and the most effective approach is to develop an authentic story–and tell it effectively. A company needs to develop a story so bright and so right that its target audiences (employees, customers, stockholders, affiliates, suppliers, etc.) are drawn to the flame! This story needs to be told–and retold with new twists–at every opportunity, and meeting planners can play a central role in advancing this goal. The key is to develop meeting themes that support the core story and reflect the organization’s core values. By reminding everyone affiliated with your organization of where you’re going and how you plan to get there-and most importantly, how each person can contribute-you will strengthen the culture and boost the team spirit.

Stories have been the “glue” connecting people with their cultures and with one another throughout human history. In ancient cultures, and even relatively modern tribes, the oral tradition was the vehicle for passing tribal practices and history down through the generations. The designated tribal storyteller was responsible for ensuring that each member of the group understood the importance of their roles in continuing the traditions upon which the very survival of the tribe depended. The storyteller also served as an entertainer, retelling familiar tales around the campfire and engaging the imaginations of all those in the circle.

One American Indian storyteller who has become a popular icon in our modern culture is a figure appearing on petroglyphs and pictographs throughout the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. This figure has been known by many names, the most common one is Kokopelli, a Pueblo Hopi name. The mystery of this legendary figure has never been completely solved. Was he a real person, or simply a mythical symbol? Whatever the facts of Kokopelli’s origin and meaning may be, historians agree that he was a very important symbol to the ancient Pueblo and related tribes. They note that he is a highly localized figure, appearing only in rock art where the Pueblo Hopi people lived.

Why have stories always been so central to human interactions? Because stories reach people at a deeper level than a litany of facts and figures, and they stay with people longer. As the high-tech elements continually become more dominant, people hunger for “high-touch” interactions.

Stories in Corporate Cultures
Corporate cultures are no different from ethnic cultures in their need for, and dependence on, stories like the one of Kokopelli, which help to create a culture as well as keep it alive. While in our modern culture we often think of a “story” or “myth” as a fabrication, stories, are, in fact, the primary tool we all use to communicate. “How’s your day going?” “What’s the status of your project?” “What’s the latest news on the company’s new product?” Each of these commonly posed questions is answered in story form, whether or not the speaker is consciously aware of being a “storyteller.” Awareness, however, is essential to the process of identifying an organization’s core story.

To reach key audiences, an organization’s story must be authentic; it must be based on corporate values and guiding principles. An authentic story reveals the true personality of the organization. It is, in essence, the heart and soul of the organization. As such, the core story must be told by people in leadership roles in a consistent manner and on a regular basis to ensure that they control it. When a leader articulates the core story effectively and consistently, people at all levels of the organization are captivated by the vision and begin “singing from the same page.” This level of company-wide consistency and commitment enables an organization to “cut through the clutter of the marketplace to reach its targeted audiences and draw them into the inner circle.

Teambuilding through Personal Stories
The storytelling approach also has proven to be a highly effective teambuilding system, which is especially fitting for a retreat. Work teams often choose to apply the process in telling their own personal stories before beginning the joint work of developing the organization’s story. In doing so, they experience two key aspects of working together:

  • Self-discovery is exciting.
  • Self-disclosure leads to trust.

Their excitement is contagious! As participants discover shared personal values, they begin building ties with co-workers with whom they formerly believed they had nothing in common.

In one memorable case some years ago, the storytelling process overcame what had seemed insurmountable barriers between an entrenched manager in a small municipal outpost and the new, sophisticated urban manager who had been brought in to replace him. The atmosphere, understandably, was tense as the first day of a two-day planning retreat began. Following a relaxing and playful creative exercise and the sharing of the team’s personal stories, however, the tension eased considerably. The two men warmed up to one another and continued their discussion over lunch. The rest of the retreat was extremely productive, with the outcomes far surpassing the expectations of everyone involved.

This experience clearly demonstrates that the sharing of common values and a common mission helps people to

  • work together,
  • support one another, and
  • serve the customer more effectively.

By incorporating storytelling as a part of your meetings and retreats-as a guide for developing the theme and/or as a part of the agenda-you will have a direct impact on helping the organization realize its goals. You also will strengthen team spirit throughout the organization by keeping everyone fired up with the red-hot stories they hear and tell!

© Evelyn Clark, The Corporate Storyteller, is president of Clark & Company, a marketing communication firm in the Seattle area. A public relations practitioner with more than 20 years experience, she was accredited by the Public Relations Society of America in 1986. Her firm's services include facilitation of retreats and communication workshops, marketing and communication management, media relations strategy development, and media training.

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