Wag Your Tale

If the anecdotes you hear are better indicators of your success and ideals than the facts and figures, you have the makings of a storied business.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the February 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Teresa Lever-Pollary didn't like the way things were going. The CEO of Nightime Pediatric Clinics Inc. (NPC) in Midvale, Utah, noticed that as the company grew to four clinics and 70 employees, it was losing touch with the values that had helped it become a successful provider of after-hours medical care for children. Lever-Pollary decided the best way to express those values was not through a corporate mission or values statement-it was through stories.

Lever-Pollary, 42, began asking Nightime Pediatrics' employees, ex-employees and patients to tell her their stories about the company. One of her favorites was a nurse's recollection of the way a doctor lured an ant from inside a child's ear using a dab of cake frosting. The story, especially the ending that depicted the doctor gently releasing the ant outdoors, perfectly illustrated Nightime's focus on carefully and professionally caring for small living things.

After Lever-Pollary had collected 80-plus stories, she had them printed in a book she distributes to employees, job applicants, patients, various other health-care providers and partners. That collection of pediatrics parables supplements NPC's policy manual, mission statement and values manifesto, and it serves as a training textbook while enhancing NPC's employee orientation course and general repository of corporate culture and tradition. "It's been a very valuable project for us," Lever-Pollary says.

Gathering and recounting corporate stories has also proved a valuable project for corporate giants like 3M, Eastman Chemical, Ford Motor Co., Armstrong International Inc. and Kaiser Permanente Health-care. So says Richard Stone, a Maitland, Florida, management consultant who has worked with these firms and others to turn storytelling into an effective management tool. Stone is president of the StoryWork Institute, which designs training programs for team-building and leadership development. He and other experts agree that story-telling can not only augment or replace such things as policy and training manuals, but it can also do things that conventional corporate communications can't.

Lever-Pollary recalls that shortly after beginning the story-gathering project, a long-time employee called her at home, practically in tears, to say that participating in the effort had for the first time shown her how she contributed to the organization. Lever-Pollary says, "At that point, I really started to see the benefit of the project."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics and has written for Entrepreneur for 11 years.

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.

Story Stalls

Telling stories can create more trouble than it solves if you appear to be manipulating people, says Simmons. The best way to avoid creating resentment is to make sure you aren't trying to be Machiavellian. "People can smell a faker a mile off," she warns.

Lever-Pollary says she believes her storytelling project succeeded because she didn't force anyone to participate or direct its results to a preconceived ending. "If I'd said, 'We're all going to tell stories because we're all going to feel good about each other,' it could have gone wrong," she says.

It's important to realize that, unlike policy manuals, stories aren't directly controllable. They tend to take on lives of their own as they get passed from one employee to another, and the moral or even the content you desired may get changed or lost. Also be careful not to overuse stories. If you're seen as someone who's constantly recounting war stories or reciting moralistic anecdotes, people may stop paying attention, Stone says.

The real beauty of storytelling may be that almost everyone is already doing it. Managers of all varieties use examples, case studies, corporate myths and other stories to impart the values and practices they want to inculcate. Once you realize the inherent power in what you're already doing, you can refine your technique and make sure you're telling the right stories to achieve the desired results.

Stories don't cost anything, and telling them comes naturally to many people. As Lever-Pollary says, "Everybody has a story."

The last word in story resources can be found at Storytelling Foundation International, a Jonesborough, Tenessee organization devoted to encouraging creative and useful applications for storytelling. See the foundation's collection of articles, event news and other resources on the Web at www.storytellingfestival.net, or call (800) 952-8392 to lean more.

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