Insight article

Strategy versus story…

I’m sitting in another meeting with a prospective client, talking about the need to develop their business story, when a familiar question comes up: ‘But we’ve got a clear strategy… here on one sheet of paper… why do we need a story as well?’

For inspiration I recalled Peter Guber’s book ‘Tell to Win’.  Yes it’s a book about storytelling, but it’s written by the ex CEO of Polygram Entertainment and Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures.  This was the guy who was brought in to run one of the worlds largest entertainment companies, just after it was bought by the Japanese… in an industry that has to bet millions on big deals to survive.  In that position you are not going to succeed by talking about fairies at the bottom of your garden.

Yet Peter talks about big pitches that he lost despite having all the facts and strategy at his fingertips.  He then goes on to give many examples of how he and other successful business-people have used the power of a story to close a deal or turn round an organisation.  In search of the answer to why this is the case, he talks to Robert Rosen, a former dean at UCLA.  ‘Stories put all the key facts into an emotional context,’ Rosen says.  ‘The information in a story doesn’t just sit there as it would in a logical proposition.  Instead, it’s built to create suspense.’  That story says Guber is like a Trojan horse.  It plants change ideas inside peoples’ minds: ‘Thanks to their magical construction, stories emotionally transport the audience so they don’t even realise they’re receiving a hidden message.

What Rosen and Guber are tapping into is the difference between information and persuasion.  A well presented strategic framework can inform people about what they need to do, and for highly motivated senior management that maybe all that is required.  A story however, by engaging people at both a rational and emotional level, is able to challenge and change peoples beliefs and behaviours.

So the question of strategy versus story is really a question of whether you need to inform or persuade.  The answer is probably in the strategy itself.  If it requires change, from the alignment of directors to the behaviours of those on the shop floor, then persuasion is probably the name of the game.

Nailia Tasseel