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Time for APS leaders to tell stories

28 Jul 2014

Canberra is facing uncertain times – job losses, a new Senate making life difficult for the Government, dwindling budgets and shrinking agencies.

If ever there was time for good communications within, around and from government, the time is now. And it is time for Public Service managers to reach into their communication toolkits and pull out their most potent tool – storytelling.

Whether selling a policy or reassuring nervous staff, stories are a communicator’s best friend. They have been around forever for one very good reason. They are super effective. They are also cheap. Sure, you can use expensive channels but the best results come when you deliver a story in person. And even better they work when people hear, remember and pass your story along.

So how do they work and are there different forms of storytelling?

A story is a narrative that draws on real human experience to make a point. That experience can be your own or borrowed but it absolutely must be genuine. Stories allow people to put themselves in situations beyond the present. While bureaucracies love facts and figures, most non-involved listeners don’t. Data is drab but add a story and suddenly emotion and colour flows into your issue. In business storytelling often involves customer service or safety issues. In government it can be powerful in painting a vision of the future and the steps to reach the next horizon.

So what makes an effective story? First the best stories are real and personal. Fictitious stories lack the dignity of the real thing and opponents will brand them bogus. A good story runs only for two or three minutes, just enough time to paint a picture, show a solution (or what to avoid) and distil a single lesson. We entertain family and friends through stories but in government a story must have purpose and fit a strategy. Stories are also like dollars. They are quickly spent and your bank of corporate stories demands regular investment.

Most of us think storytelling is one-dimensional and forget its other uses. Storytelling can be a valuable way to judge the mood of an organisation. Listen carefully to stories in the coffee shop or the cubicles and you soon learn what is going on. And carefully listening to other people’s stories allows you to identify gems that can be turned into positive tales for managers to use elsewhere.

Stories can also trigger action and vice versa. If the boss does something unusual, proactive or profound, her action will stimulate a story that will travel at lightning speed throughout the organisation. Yet the leader who seldom ventures beyond his desk will only inspire stories that cast his organisation as predictable and risk averse.

So the advice for managers in uncertain times: collect, craft and communicate stories so you lead from the front and shape the future.

Recommended reading: The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling by Australian author Stephen Denning

– By Bob Crawshaw, IABC Canberra Board Member

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