On Wednesday, April 12, 2006, I had the great fortune to participate in Steve Denning’s workshop: Storytelling and Innovation at the Hasbro Corporate Headquarters in Pawtucket.
I did not know what to expect from the day, but I have an MFA in fiction writing (which has not, incidentally, translated into high career potential), so I was curious to hear about how storytelling and narrative could be used to tackle challenging topics in ways that would be compelling to a business audience.
Denning appeared to be a rather unassuming man, standing half-behind the podium as the introductory remarks were being made. As soon as he took center stage, however, he sprung to action and the workshop participants were drawn in by his candor, his enthusiasm, and his dynamic presentation style. He began by sharing a personal anecdote about his own experience at World Bank in the late 1990s. It was his relating of a 29-word story that not only changed the course of his own career but the path that the World Bank was to embark on from that point forward.
Through a series of clear, straightforward, and thoughtful prompts, and several small group activities, the power of storytelling to persuade, cajole, and inspire was demonstrated. To be sure, Denning was not talking about spinning yarns or fairy tales (although he did warn us that our stories should have “happy endings”), but about concise, well-wrought narratives that were true, positive in tone, and minimalist. This story – a “springboard story” was the key to an effective presentation, which would accomplish three essential tasks: 1. Get the attention of the audience; 2. Stimulate their emotions; and 3. Reinforce emotions with reasons.
We spent the morning working on developing our own “springboard stories” and in the afternoon, Denning took some time to talk more broadly about the role of storytelling in organizational change. Because innovation by definition is a difficult thing for an organization to accomplish, finding the formula to lasting change can be fraught with pitfalls. In order to allow potential naysayers to find their own ways into a new or complex idea, a change agent can use springboard stories and other narrative techniques to encourage envisioning a shared future. “Just imagine…” “What if…” and “Just think…” are key phrases that can link these stories to potential change.
By the end of the afternoon, we had worked out a framework for an effective presentation for organizational change. A few of the braver among us made their own presentations through which we were able to see Denning’s principles at work. These presentations were lively, engaging, inspiring and sound. We were leaving this room with real tools, and real power for change.
I personally left Steve Denning’s workshop invigorated, inspired, and with a deeper understanding of the power of effective communication. And with a renewed faith that my MFA will be valuable in ways I could not have anticipated.
Thank you, Steve Denning, and thank you, Business Innovation Factory!