Telling Tales

Updated: Aug 20, 2019



The following article is a summary of an event run by The Foundation in 2012. The event was held on 24th April and focused on storytelling – how stories are used by people in different types of organisation and situation to achieve things broadly related to growth. Our speakers were Baroness (Sally) Morgan of Huyton, who worked for Tony Blair from 1995 and then in No10 Downing Street as Director of Government Relations until May 2005, and is also a member of the Foundation’s Advisory Board; Peter Jones, whose career spanned journalism to corporate communications and included senior roles at British Airways and BUPA; and Preethi Nair, management consultant turned novelist who now advises business leaders on storytelling and creativity, and who has a unique personal story to tell. Their conversation has been summarised by Simon Caulkin, formerly Management Editor at the Observer.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives – a kind of unconscious mnemonic by which we remind ourselves who we are, what we do and why we do it. They shape decisions (how to vote, what to eat, what partner to choose). They are the invisible fabric of communication – as comes into sharp focus in the presence of those who through age or other reason have lost the mnemonic and with it the cues that make meaningful conversation possible even on the basis of amazingly elliptical and imprecise information. Stories are part of being human.

As participants at a crowded and lively Foundation Forum on 24 April were shown, for companies and other organisations, stories are just as important as for individuals – with the difference that, scaled up, the ramifications are more complex and the stakes higher. This is because, as the Foundation’s Charlie Dawson pointed out, the power of stories cuts both ways. Just as a dramatic story can motivate individuals, energise organisations and uplift whole nations – think of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ as an enduring national totem and rallying call – the reverse is also true. The consequences of stories ripple out. Thus, even at individual level (as the experience of one speaker, Preethi Nair heartbreakingly demonstrated) manufactured stories – fibs – even well-intentioned ones, have effects far beyond the personal. At company level, a gap between corporate rhetoric and what onlookers perceive can leave leaders teetering on a precipice, as at News Corp. In the thick of it, the state of the national message is a rough-and-ready barometer of the health of the government itself.

"The power of stories cuts both ways. Just as a dramatic story can motivate individuals, energise organisations and uplift whole nations (...) the reverse is also true."

Individuals mostly use stories without thinking too much about them. But for organisations, understanding the function and working of a narrative is critical. As Sally Morgan, now Baroness Morgan of Huyton, formerly Director of Government Relations for Tony Blair, eloquently explained, in politics crafting and managing the story is the means by which parties get into government and stay there (or not). Yet stories on their own, insists Morgan, have limited use. They can flesh out and reinforce, but without a core thread to cohere around, they are just anecdotes – anecdotes, what’s more, which left to themselves can quickly develop a life of their own, especially in an ever more crowded and fast-moving news agenda. ‘The question I ask is, “what’s the washing line?” What I mean is, what is that thing that we’re hanging all our key messages on, what is the thing that everybody understands? It’s what we’re about, and from that washing line you hang your big significant themes’.

In the case of New Labour, at least initially, the washing line was taut and universally understood. New Labour/New Britain stood for reform and modernisation of party and country, with the idea of fairness at the centre. That message was not only easy for voters to understand, notes Morgan; it was a guide for decision-making at every level and part of government. So economically, a minimum wage went with the drive for efficiency, responsibilities balanced rights in the social arena. A strong central narrative makes it easier to choose smaller stories to hang off and bring it alive – and to limit the damage when a story suddenly veers off track. Thus there’s no immediate counter to an on-air harangue on waiting times by a distraught relative outside a hospital A&E department, but at least it can be co-opted to support the bigger case for reform and efficiency.

"A strong central narrative makes it easier to choose smaller stories to hang off and bring it alive – and to limit the damage when a story suddenly veers off track"

Conversely, when the New Labour washing line frayed, policy coherence was lost and the stories spun centrifugally out of control. The coalition’s current travails, suggests Morgan, may be due to something similar. As an idea, the Big Society is too blurred to inform other policy strands such as NHS reform or, for example, to shape the budget. If anything, the central message has become the coalition itself, feeding off and amplifying stories of party difference. Morgan says: ‘Stories are coming out which aren’t necessarily significant in themselves, but because there isn’t an obvious core narrative, they develop anenergy and momentum that they don't really deserve’.

Much the same is true for organisations. For Peter Jones, professional communicator, the operative metaphor is the picture on the cover of a jigsaw box. Take the case of BA in the 1980s. Moving it from reputedly ‘’Bloody Awful’ to poster child for Margaret Thatcher’s brave new world was ‘a massive journey, and we had to be very clear with all the audiences, but with staff in particular who were doing it on the frontline, what the picture on the front of the jigsaw box was. Because if you don’t do that, if all you do is throw apparently disconnected bits of information at them at different times and they can’t find the context for it, life becomes incredibly challenging’. All the more so when the path to success, as a Foundation tweet reminds us, is anything but straightforward. In turn the picture on the box – not so much a narrative, more a statement of purpose or intent – is the product of much hard work identifying the answer to two essential questions: who do we want to address and what is it that we want to say?

Top-line narrative failure poses special problems for organisations. One well known to business academics is 'strategic drift'. Paradoxically, this occurs when the officially approved corporate narrative is too ingrained to register changing business conditions, strategy failing to adapt to the new reality. Strategic drift is remarkably common – Tesco may be the latest sufferer– which is why so many companies fail to change until the gap between story and reality is too wide to bridge by business-as-usual: crisis, in fact. A related issue is companies coming to believe their own press, with similar results. Conversely, companies can exist for a long time with no compelling narrative at all, resulting in a different kind of drift. A telltale is one of the most debilitating aspects of business – impenetrable jargon and business-speak in place of an intelligible story, denial or, even worse, a false one: in other words, lies.

A telltale indicator of drift is one of the most debilitating aspects of business – impenetrable jargon and business-speak that cover up the lack of an intelligible story.

Fibs eventually implode. But just how far they can be taken before that happens was illustrated by the heartrending, and finally heartening, experience of the third speaker, Preethi Nair. In brief, having given up her job as strategy consultant to fulfil a lifelong ambition to write, Nair spent the next 18 months leading a double, even treble life: pretending to her parents that she still had her job, writing a novel, and finally – the tour de force – creating an alter ego, Pru, a pushy publicist whose job was to win the author airtime. In the end the balls crashed to earth – but not before Nair had nailed a book contract and ‘Pru’ had been nominated as publicist of the year. There was of course a cost in stress and private life, and in the end Nair decided that the endless churn of book publishing was not for her. But out of it she found what she really did want to do. ‘I’m writing in other forms,’ she says. ‘I thought, I really want to take creativity, imagination, visions, storytelling back into the corporate world where I started, so using all this experience I set up a company that teaches leaders to tell stories’.

Like other powerful and seductive techniques, storytelling contains traps for the unwary, including society as a whole. Peter Jones rounded off his piece with a serious, broader insight – the way a free press is undermining free speech. A number of trends have combined to bring this about; the ease with which anyone can have a voice through digital media; the welter of strident poorly informed views that get heard as a result; a lack of time for us all to examine complicated issues carefully meaning we are uncritical of simplistic points of view; an intensely competitive newspaper industry that needs to use stories-as-polemic rather than balanced presentation in order to sell copies to such an audience; the consequence that politicians have to respond to this continual flow of extreme headlines; and the failure of those with deeper knowledge or a more balanced perspective to step forward for fear of reprisals and simply not being heard. As a result, the stories fight each other and there is no coherent narrative; there’s ‘heat but no light and suboptimal decisions, driven more by opinion polls and circulation figures than need’. Somewhat ironically, the ease with which every individual can now share their opinions in a competing cacophony of voices and the need for the press to sell copies every day ultimately threatens the sense-making, understanding and freedom that we required of the press in the first place.

There’s no easy solution to this, but perhaps pleasingly, it puts an even greater premium on what everyone agrees are the core components of good storytelling: relying not on plot or fancy words, but being absolutely sure about the overall message, and on courage and authenticity in telling it. Warren Buffett once said: ‘In evaluating people, you look for three things: integrity, intelligence and energy. And if you don't have the first, the other two will kill you’. It’s the same with stories. Whether at individual, corporate or political level, authenticity is hard to define and impossible to teach, but you sure know it when you see it. It’s about being brave enough to admit vulnerability, to tell it like it is, to reach out to others. And woe betide those who attempt to tell the story without using the heart as well as the head. ‘Being natural,’ warned Oscar Wilde, ‘is a very difficult pose to keep up’.

Whether at individual, corporate or political level, authenticity is hard to define and impossible to teach, but you sure know it when you see it.

The Foundation's view

What we took out of the evening...

Stories are a means to an end, so be clear about the reality of the situation and where you want to take people before worrying about how you get them there (the story). Get the washing line or the cover on the jigsaw box clear first, and spend time making sure this narrative is rock solid i.e. true, and precise in relation to your intent.

The story people believe comes from what you do not what you say. If what you say matches what you eventually do, your words with gain weight over time.

Authenticity is absolutely central to making sure what’s said and done fit naturally. It can be earned by talking honestly about flaws – worries, mistakes, and the learning that resulted.

Being authentic takes courage, and more than that, challenging the prevailing view takes a great deal of courage. The crowd can sometimes be wise, but if you challenge accepted wisdom, the crowd can also be simplistic and antagonistic.

Don’t pursue a narrative that isn’t working – that requires listening not just transmitting, not easy in a crisis (but even more important than with business as usual!)Talk to people not positions. You’re all individuals with intelligence and enough context to spot bullshit and flannel. Listen to people in person, whether across an organisation or a wider external audience. It keeps your feet on the ground, which is the best place to have them in telling authentic, effective stories.

About The Foundation

We are a management consultancy working with all kinds of organisations to achieve customer-led success. This means tackling big organic growth challenges; growing faster, growing into new markets or fending off threats to growth by starting with what matters to customers and then making it work for the business as well.

The aim is to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren't challenged.

We help clients look from the outside-in, re-connecting them with what customers really value (the problem they want to solve, not usually what the client sells), then finding new and better ways to create this value.

This means working both as expert advisors and facilitators. The issue with simply gathering outside-in information is that it lacks impact to get senior teams to tackle inconvenient truths in what customers want, and to believe their own organisation can be different.

By using ‘Immersion’, personal conversations with customers and leaders of organisations in other sectors who have tackled parts of their challenge, we help teams get around the natural and limiting inside-out beliefs that stand in their way. This helps them develop better answers for customers and new ways of achieving lasting success.

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Small – a new proposition or an improved customer experience

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Our clients include HSBC, JLR, O2, M&S and Ebay, with achievements including helping create Plan A at M&S, adding £100m of value to a Travelex travel money proposition, and giving Morrisons a competitive direction contributing to their return to growth.

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