21 Apr Why you should always tell the full story
Stories are fascinating aren’t they? Not just because of the tales they tell, but because they’re so versatile. Even in a target-driven business environment.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the power of stories recently. Or more specifically, why stories matter so much when you’re trying to engage with people in a straightforward manner.
You’ll often find me lying in bed at some unsociable hour searching for the truth behind a narrative. Why do people construct stories in their minds? Especially if facts speak for themselves.
We’re inspired by stories from childhood and beyond. As Stephen D. Levitt put it in his excellent book Freakonimics:
…from the earliest days of human kind we have learnt by telling stories.
We yearn for a way to string facts together into an understandable narrative to make sense of them in our minds. We quickly attempt to craft stories from situations and pass these stories on to others to explain our experiences and share truth in the process.
As a driver for change, I believe that stories are an incredibly effective vehicle for making an impact on people’s mindset.
But when we talk to organisations about sharing feedback with employees, the kind of feedback that is supposed to inspire and change people’s mindset, all we see is dashboards. Charts. Numbers. Progress against objectives. Facts which are expected to speak for themselves.
And when we ask those employees how they’ve interpreted these facts, the different stories we get back continue to confound. Once again: people create their own stories to explain what they perceive as the truth.
A lesson from experience
About two years ago I changed our management systems to an automatic data driven dashboard. So everyone in our organisation can see every aspect of our performance, emailed to them every Monday and Friday morning. It was quite a leap to be so transparent when I set it up, but without this information I’d seen a tendency for people to interpret the business situation in a variety of different ways. So I saw the dashboard as an ideal opportunity to give people the truth.
The facts alone would make it much easier to have accurate conversations about our business and what we need to achieve. And it’s made a big difference. When I speak to people, they undoubtedly know much more about the business and our successes. Job done, right?
After half an hour on the phone last week with a team member discussing how pleased we were with the progress we’d made, I received a rather worried call from another colleague in our sales team:
I’ve seen the latest dashboard! What does it mean? I didn’t expect what I’m seeing at all. What are we going to do about it? How does this affect me?
The dashboard figures represented positive confirmation of the hard work we’d done, despite some unforgiving circumstances. And we expected the positive glow of engagement from our entire team, as everyone realised what we had achieved.
But instead of the positive impact I’d expected from the dashboard, I’d left someone more worried about the future then they had been before.
Without realising, I hadn’t told the whole story. I expected the facts to speak for themselves without the context of the unforgiving circumstances: the rest of the story that strung together the facts and gave them context
Now, don’t get me wrong
Facts are essential. We need dashboards, charts, numbers and progress against objectives. Without this, how can we understand progress and make decisions?
But on their own, they’re not nearly enough. The truth is always there but if you’re not telling it in its entirety, inspiring people with it, people fill in the gaps themselves. And they might not end up with the story you expect.