Stories in Business

I seem to be surrounded by long documents and large spreadsheets again. People have spent hours on these pieces of work, but I’m unlikely to read them. It’s a shame, but it’s the reality.

Trying to push a mouse aroundThe other day Shel Israel wrote in “Story Telling VS 10,0000 years of PowerPoint” about the challenge of the bullet-point culture that we are in and the stories that are deep within our human nature.

If you’ve been reading this blog, and my twitter updates for any length of time, I am not a fan of large documents or bullet-points, but I am a huge fan of stories (here)

The following story is a caricature of a real meeting:

“Oh no, It’s that Tuesday in the month again, that one when Bill gets to talk us through the standard 84 page bullet-point fest that he loves so much.” I think to myself as I look at my diary and the day that is ahead.

I know that this two hour green block in my diary means that I will be entering into a form of torture chamber once again. A torture chamber where I want to stand up and say “who cares”, but know that I will, as always, sit there like a good boy and say nothing. I will start the meeting determined to focus and to be constructive, but I know that over time the BlackBerry will get more and more attention, and the meeting will slip steadily into the background.

Sure enough that is exactly what happens. After reading through the contents of the first 10 slides I’m almost 100% focussed on anything other than the never ending stream of bullet-points set out before me.

My BlackBerry flashes, I know what it is going to be before I even look at it, it’s from Mike who’s sat across from me. His phone is getting a similar amount of attention to mine and he has sent me a text – it’s not complementary. My reply isn’t exactly constructive.

I know that I will never get back the seconds, minutes and hours that are passing before me. I set there ashamed by my lack of courage – “why don’t I say something? Anything?” – but I don’t. I let the time tick on and drip away.

And then someone does say something, out of the blue they ask a question. They break right in – mid-bullet-point.

But what difference does all this stuff make to Mary?”

Mary? Why Mary?” says Bill

Because she’s the person who complains the most to me about all of this. There isn’t a week goes by when she isn’t telling me how useless it all is? The other day I could see how stressed and frustrated she was. It’s not like her so I asked her what was wrong, and she told me. She told me about the time it takes to get things done. She told me about the lack of answers she gets from the people running the service. She told me about how no-one else will use the system because it’s so bad, but she doesn’t have a choice. What difference is this going to make to her?”

Well I don’t know?” said Bill looking a bit flustered

“She’s just in the next office why don’t a get her and she can tell us”

Mary joined us and tells us about her challenges, her problems, her frustrations, her annoyances. She has some great ideas about how it could be so much better too.

At first Bill tries to get us back to the slides that he is determined that we should get through, but he soon realised that he has lost. We wanted to hear Mary’s story, we wanted to know how we could make her life better, we want to hear her ideas.

We had our story and we were going to get as much out of it as we could.

There are all sorts of techniques for introducing stories into business, and in particular, into the system architecture and design business where I find myself. These stories are far more powerful than a slide deck of bullet-points could ever be. I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again, one of the reasons I love Rich Pictures is because done well they tell a story.

People stand around gossiping and will happily do it for hours, but I can’t imagine people spending the same amount of time discussing the contents of page 46 paragraph 4 of the latest technical tome.

Tell the story.

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