Wag Your Tale

Once Upon A Time

Stories are uniquely able to transfer multidimensional concepts, says Annette Simmons, a Greensboro, North Carolina, management consultant and author of The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling (Perseus). For instance, many company service policies require that employees tell all customers to have a nice day. Sometimes this is the wrong thing to say, but it's difficult to draft a policy flexible enough to reflect that idea, Simmons says. A story about an employee who left an obviously distraught customer with a sympathetic farewell can impart exactly the nuance necessary, and a story can hold a complex truth.

One of the most famous story-tellers with an agenda is Aesop, the Greek fabulist who recounted classic tales such as "The Tortoise and the Hare" more than 2,500 years ago. The morals in Aesop's stories are clearly stated at the end, a practice anyone who wants to use stories as management tools should mimic. "If I don't tell you what the moral is, you may not know what [the story] means," warns David Armstrong, COO of Stuart, Florida-based industrial products manufacturer Armstrong International and author of Managing by Storying Around (Doubleday), which, in 1992, was one of the first books to make the connection between managing and telling stories.

Before you reveal the story's moral to the readers, however, you must know exactly what it is you want the tale to convey. So the first thing to do in managing by storytelling is to clearly set forth the values you want your company and its stories to represent. Then start collecting. Interview as many employees, customers, suppliers, partners and others as you can. Stone and Lever-Pollary interviewed more than 100 people for Nightime Pediatrics over several months.

Also, make sure the stories you collect are true and accurate, warns Armstrong, who prefers to mention employees by name in stories. Edit the stories to make them short enough to fit on a page or so. As long as you don't change the meaning of the story, it's fine to excise narrative, tighten dialog or incorporate an explanation to control length, build interest and make the meaning clear.

Show the edited stories to the people who told them to you to make sure your representation is accurate. Then, share the stories. You can do this by publishing a book, by regularly posting one or two on company bulletin boards or in newsletters, or by simply recounting them in meetings.

Don't worry if some of your stories have less than glorious endings. People can learn from the hard times as well as the good ones. Lever-Pollary says some of Nightime Pediatrics' most effective stories are those that depict everyone pulling together to overcome difficulties with new computer systems. Stories don't all have to be about heroic salespeople who pull in million-dollar orders, either. Simple tales of the reception desk or shipping dock can be just as effective and inspiring.

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This article was originally published in the February 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Wag Your Tale.

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