Today, we’re excited to bring you a guest post by Paul Smith, one of the leading experts in business storytelling.
As an experienced leader, no doubt you already tell a few stories. But how do you know you’re telling the right stories? What’s the most important story you should be telling?
That’s a question I’ve thought a lot about. And after interviewing over 300 CEOs, leaders, and executives in 25 countries around the world about their use of storytelling in business, I finally have an answer. My shortlist of the most important stories leaders need to tell include stories about where we came from (a founding story), where we’re going (a vision story), and how we’re going to get there (a strategy story), among several others.
But for this article, I wanted to focus on the one I call a “Why we can’t stay here” story – in other words, a case-for-change story.
Here’s an example:
In February 2015, National Public Radio aired a story about Joey, a ten-year-old boy in Gainesville, Florida, suffering from a rare form of kidney cancer. When Joey was diagnosed in March 2013, the cancer had already spread to his abdomen, chest, and neck. He went through two surgeries and five rounds of oral and intravenous chemotherapy, none of which worked for more than a month or two. Eventually, he’d exhausted all the available treatments.
So, his mother, Kathy Liu, tried to get treatments that weren’t available. She heard several new immunotherapy treatments were in clinical trials, but none of the trials were accepting children.
Then in September, the FDA approved Keytruda, the first in the new class of immunotherapy drugs called PD-1 inhibitors, created by Merck. Despite being approved for use, his doctors were hesitant to try the new drug on Joey because it wasn’t clinically tested on children.
Kathy found a doctor in Cincinnati willing to try. So, her whole family packed their things in Florida and moved to Ohio.
Joey got the first injection of Keytruda on October 14, over a year and a half after being diagnosed. The tumors in his neck shrank significantly. And the ones in the rest of his body stabilized. But Joey was already weak when the treatment started, and the cancer had an eighteen-month head start.
Joey died the day before Thanksgiving.
Kathy told the NPR reporter, “If Joey could [have gotten] this drug last year, even just a couple of months earlier, maybe it [would have been] a different story.”
Kathy lost Joey that day. But she hasn’t given up her fight. Today, she runs a foundation called Joey’s Wings that raises awareness and money specifically for pediatric cancer research.
When that story aired on NPR, one of the people who heard it worked at a company that had just retained me as a storytelling coach. The industry they worked in produced lifesaving products but took a notoriously long time to get them to market—sometimes a decade or more.
So, like most of their competitors, one of the things they were working on was how to get products to market faster. But changing a complex, decade-long process is hard work. The motivation to earn profits faster didn’t seem sufficient to move the organization to make the radical changes necessary. My job was to help them develop a case -for-change story.
When one of the participants in my workshop shared NPR’s story of Kathy and Joey, it immediately became the basis for our story—our case for change.
Think about that. Keytruda wasn’t their product. And Joey wasn’t their customer. But it did become their story—or at least a fictionalized version of it. Because they knew the same thing was surely happening with the lifesaving products they were working on. And having a human reason to do all this hard work was a more effective motivator than higher profits and a growing stock price.
Tips to help you craft your own case-for-change story
Start by asking yourself: “Who stands to benefit from this change?” Surely, it’s good for someone or something your audience cares about, or it wouldn’t be a priority for the company.
Once you know who that is, talk to them and ask these kinds of questions:
- What’s their life or work like today (prior to making this change)?
- What problems or frustrations do they experience?
- How would their life or work be different once we implement this change?
- What are the tangible ways you’ll know the change is working for them?
Sure, not everyone will have a story as compelling as Kathy Liu because not everyone’s job is curing cancer. But whatever it is that you and your company are trying to do with this change will surely benefit someone. The point is, a story about the human impact of the change, whether that’s a benefit to the employees who have to go through the change or to your customers or to the community, it will likely be more compelling than just telling people how much money it’ll save.
Craft your own Kathy Liu story. That will be your personal case for change.
To see an example of each type of story, along with a few tips to help you find and craft your own, check out The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.
You can connect with Paul at www.leadwithastory.com