To have better ideas, become a better storyteller

Real stories have characters, conflict, plot, and resolution. Most stories in business do not.
Real stories have characters, conflict, plot, and resolution. Most stories in business do not.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Anyone who has tried to lead change in a big company knows how hard it is to move from meetings to action. Although everyone may nod their heads in the meeting, creating real behavior change is an entirely different matter.

There are several prescribed remedies, including pre-selling the results, giving leaders information about our personal experience with the problem, and using data. We’ve tried them all and these tactics rarely produce the needed behavior change.

One particular meeting when this happened stands out: While leading a team focused on innovation at Lowes, Kyle Nel was desperate to communicate his new message and vision. He went on to read and then apply advice from a former P&G executive who suggested that the presenter read the headlines of each slide and ensure that they tell a story.

During the meeting, Kyle diligently applied this advice in an attempt to convince the audience, but by the end of the presentation and a subsequent debate, there was no more behavior change than when he started. The research, the pre-selling, the added personal experience, and even the story hadn’t worked. Or, more accurately, what we call a story in the business world—often just a chronological series of events—hadn’t worked. In such a “story” there are no characters, no plot, no conflict, no resolution. Nothing to make you believe. Nothing to inspire change. Truthfully, typical business tales are not real stories.

Real stories are something different. They have characters, conflict, plot, and resolution; they start movements and wars. Real stories are our oldest and most powerful tool.

After years of failed presentations across multiple organizations, Kyle read a book that inspired him to explore the power of these real stories in business. The book described how Michael Crichton had written the science fiction novel Jurassic Park, which became an international bestseller and spawned films that have been enjoyed by successive generations of children.

The book describes how Crichton developed Jurassic Park by visiting the local library and immersing himself in the latest writing on bioengineering, paleontology, archeology, radiocarbon dating, and related technologies and then writing a story about a possible future and its implications. In effect, Crichton had synthesized contemporary data and predicted a plausible future and, in some ways, a not-too-distant future. (In fact, a team at Harvard recently started trying to bring back wooly mammoths through the CRISPR gene-editing technique.)

As Kyle surveyed the incremental innovation efforts at every big company around him, he asked himself, Could we use science fiction to envision a more radical future? Moreover, could we use real stories to motivate the executives to take committed action?

Kyle shared his frustrations with his leader at Lowe’s, who, believing they should try something different if they wanted to create the future, gave Kyle permission to try it. However, frankly, he probably had no idea how wild Kyle’s idea would be!

Kyle started by assembling Lowe’s data about customer experiences and external reports about technology trends from companies like Gartner and Forrester and then gave this data to a panel of five science fiction writers. He asked them to write a story about what the future could be like in five to ten years, with real customers at the center of the story.

Surprisingly, three of the five stories came back with narratives about using immersive reality (e.g., AR and VR) to envision how to improve their homes. (The fourth story was mainly about a dystopian overlord, and the fifth future was no different from today.)

Using these stories, Kyle worked with the best storyteller of the group and, over multiple iterations, developed a single story of how immersive reality might help customers envision how to remodel their homes.

He then captured this story in a few pages—the first draft was only about ten pages long. But the story had emotional power because it described real people trying to solve a meaningful dilemma. The early story even had a few watercolor illustrations.

Finally, the time came to share the story with the executives in Kyle’s business unit. When the executives in the room read the story about how a couple could use these futuristic technologies to create a place they love, the entire tenor of the room changed. The skepticism disappeared. The risk aversion evaporated. The hedging and the doubt and the “we can’t do this, because we aren’t a tech company” and all the related excuses disappeared. In its place was enthusiasm and urgency.

The conversation went from “we can’t do this” to “we have to do this.”

Excerpted from Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future. Published with permission from Harvard Business Review Press.