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I want to tell you a story...

Published on Friday, 15 Apr 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative
Author: Stephen Denning
Publisher: Jossey-Bass

You can command and control staff through your job title, but a simple story can tell them who you are and inspire them, says Australian author and business consultant Stephen Denning in his revised version of The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.

Corporate presentations can all seem very similar in the PowerPoint age, says the 66-year-old former World Bank senior executive. Instead of watching people's eyes glaze over as you spout through your bullet points, you can engage them with a personal message, Denning says.

Storytelling is easier than you think, he says, because people tell stories in the form of gossip, jokes, news and reminiscences. Stories also reveal something about you.

The trick is to extend the storytelling habit you developed with friends into a business technique with strangers, the author says. You don't have to be a great orator. People need to know you in some way before they decide to take your plans on board.

Denning acknowledges that few people excel in storytelling and the art can be resisted in the analytical formality of corporate life, yet he effectively relates how his technique was at first regarded as "fuzzy" or "irrational" and then accepted by colleagues.

He describes how good stories can often be under colleagues' noses. His yarn about a Zambian health worker's successful internet search for a malaria cure helped the World Bank realise the benefits of spreading knowledge in an organisation. Such success can also become "springboard stories" that galvanise action or change behaviour.

Denning's parable on pavement failure in Pakistan shows what happens when a company's departments co-operate. He says the bank could have sent a team to investigate the problem over several months, but soon learned after an interdepartmental global e-mail that it was already an expert on the matter, thanks to pooled knowledge. This success encourages further teamwork at the bank.

He also makes a convincing case for the power of narrative. He quotes United States economist Deirdre McCloskey as saying that persuasion is worth 14 per cent of gross national product or more than US$1 trillion. He also shows how stories can help make or break leaders: how Lou Gerstner transformed IBM and how John Kerry's nebulous politics blew the 2004 presidential election. He shows how Body Shop's Anita Roddick revealed her upbringing and personal values with a recollection of her bereaved mother's fury against the parish priest and how Michael Dell can explain who he is in about a minute.

He also cites how Hewlett-Packard's Carly Fiorina failed to convince Wall Street on an acquisition and, in his best chapter, "Taming the Grapevine", he recalls how former US president Bill Clinton used satire and humour to counter rumours.

Denning originally wrote The Leader's Guide to Storytelling in 2005 and has updated it to illustrate the increasing relevance of social media on branding and storytelling, as with Jet Blue's cheeky response last year to one of its flight attendants' Facebook fame.

There might be times when you wish Denning would junk the jargon but the book's practical value emerges on second reading. His how-to summaries and story plot guides prepare Hong Kong's senior executives for an increasingly communicative, independent-minded and competitive business world. The Leader's Guide to Storytelling is required reading for anyone who takes his customers, investors and colleagues seriously in the Twitter era.


Five insights

  • Audit criticism and prepare a response to it
  • Use ridicule to fight the rumour mill
  • Help your supporters tell your story
  • Bring in the big guns to help in set battles
  • Emplace structural measures to reinforce your story


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