“Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book, known to him by heart, and his friends can only read the title.”
Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room.
We live in a storied world. Pick up a newspaper, read on-line. Listen to the news. Look at Facebook. Eavesdrop at the pub or in the check out queue. We live in a multi-versed universe. And story-telling, the world over, is how we seem to prefer to communicate.
All of us construct narratives about ourselves – where we’ve come from, what we do, where we are going. As leaders, we are responsible for setting the vision, the tone and a coherent narrative in the parts of the company for which we are accountable.
So, we need to find ways to tell stories using words, metaphors and pictures, which unite a team or a whole organisation – and make people feel cohesive and connected as a group to the wider web of your brand and strategy.
On a personal level, stories are one way we can illuminate and infuse meaning into the everyday purpose at the core of our business. And stories can be used to show your people who you are as a leader, what’s important to you, how you show up in the world and what you evoke in others.
Writers Ibarra & Kent say there are 5 key elements of a classic story. All great stories, from Antigone to Casablanca to Harry Potter, derive their power from several basic characteristics – outlined below
- A protagonist the listener cares about. The story must be about a person or group whose struggles we can relate to.
- A catalyst compelling the protagonist to take action. Somehow the world has changed so that something important is at stake. Typically, the first act of a play is devoted to establishing this fact. It’s up to the protagonist or their group (e.g. the Suffragettes) to put things right again.
- Trials and tribulations. The story’s second act commences as obstacles produce frustration, conflict and drama, and often lead the protagonist to change in an essential way. As in The Odyssey, the trials reveal, test, and shape the protagonist’s character. Time is spent wandering in the wilderness, far from home.
- A turning point. This represents a point of no return, which closes the second act. The protagonist can no longer see or do things the same way as before.
- A resolution. This is the third act, in which the protagonist either succeeds magnificently or fails tragically.
This is the classic beginning-middle-end story structure defined by Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago and used by countless others since. It seems to reflect how the human mind wants to organise reality.
When we tell our story we can either choose to play the central part – or we can include those who also inhabit the stage of our professional and personal life. Stories that move from ‘I’ to ‘We’ can often be those that make the greatest impact as everyone can recognise the part they play in the overall narrative.
If you were to choose a title for your autobiography – what would it be?
Myrna Gower & Georgina Noakes – helping leaders shape their stories.
By “story” we don’t mean something ‘made up’ or telling ‘tall tales’.
Ibarra, H. & Lineback, K. What’s your story? Harvard Business Review, January 2005