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The Stories We Tell Determine The Change We Can Achieve

2023 October 22

At some level, change is always about the stories we tell. We like to think that we humans are objective arbiters of the facts, but that’s not really true. We think in narratives. In one study, juries considered experts that shared stories far more credible than those that merely offered an analysis of the relevant facts.

Every organization tells stories, some deliberate, some not. General Electric was able to tell successful stories for decades, yet it was a false narrative and, when the facts caught up, the firm collapsed. On the other hand, Satya Nadella was able to change the narrative at Microsoft even though, objectively, the company was already doing well.

Hollywood mogul Peter Guber describes stories as “emotional transport” and that’s why we need to be purposeful about the ones we tell if we are to bring about genuine transformation. Stakeholders need to be able to see themselves as heroes in the stories we tell, working within shared values to achieve a common purpose. Our story needs to be their story.

What Makes A Story?

The first element of any story is its exposition, which is the world you build around the story and includes the setting, the characters and other background information. This often comes at the beginning of the story, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes, elements of the setting or details about the characters are leaked out as the plot develops.

The most important aspect of any story is the tension or conflict to be resolved. That’s what keeps the audience’s interest. Will the hero survive? Does the boy end up with the girl? Will justice prevail? It is the uncertainty surrounding the tension that makes a story interesting. A preordained story is a bore.

Another way to look at a story is an intention or ambition and an obstacle. If you can identify an ambition that people actually have—even if they aren’t aware of their intention—and then show that you can overcome the obstacles preventing them from achieving that ambition, you have a powerful narrative. Steve Jobs was a master at telling those kinds of stories (and then adding “one more thing.”)

There are, essentially, two ways to start a story. The first and less effective way is with the exposition, laying out the setting and characters, like when your mom tells the tale of meeting someone at the drug store and 10 minutes later you’re still hearing about their grandchildren. The other is to start with the tension, like when a James Bond movie begins with him hanging off a helicopter and you only find out why only later.

Start with the tension. Identify a problem to be solved. Learning how the obstacles to solving the problem will be overcome is what makes a story interesting.

The Hero’s Journey 

One of the most common narrative devices is the “hero’s journey“, which involves different variations of a departure, an initiation, and a return. For example, in the Star Wars trilogy, we met Luke Skywalker as a restless boy on Tatooine. The hologram he unlocked in R2D2 kicked off his departure on a  journey, in which he learned about “The Force.”

In a hero’s journey, the primary struggle is internal and the righteousness of your cause is your salvation. In order for Luke to prevail against Darth Vader and the evil empire, he first needed to conquer himself. Once he was able to do that, victory became, in some sense, inevitable.

We often like to think about change in this way because, in some sense, it’s easy. After all, who can oppose us when we are so diligently working for the greater good? If we are just good and pure and true, then success should become inevitable. We just need to keep the faith, endure any hardship that comes our way and we will be rewarded in the end.

Unfortunately, like Star Wars, this story is a fantasy and the stubborn belief in it will almost guarantee failure. Some people mistakenly see nobility in this type of defeat, because they can tell themselves that they fought “the good fight” and the deck was simply stacked against them. That way, they can blame everyone else instead of their “heroic” selves.

Change As A Strategic Conflict

The true story of change is that of strategic conflict between a future vision and the status quo. There are sources of power keeping the status quo in place and that’s where the battle lies. If you can remove—or even mitigate—those sources of power the status quo cannot survive and transformation can take place. As long as they remain, nothing will change.

Once you understand this story, you can begin to build an effective strategy. Power always lies in institutions and you can begin to identify which ones support the status quo, which support the future vision and which are on the fence. Those institutional targets will determine how you develop tactics.

Notice how differently the two stories affect actions. If you believe that you’re on a hero’s journey, then your primary goal is to communicate your virtue. You assume that once everyone understands your idea, they will embrace it. So you spend your time coming up with slogans, convinced that the right message will help others see the light.

When you begin to internalize the story of change as a strategic conflict it becomes clear that it’s more important to make a difference than to make a point. Demonstrating the righteousness of your cause is not nearly as important as letting others see their place in your story, how they too can be heroes in it and how they will be better off for it.

Creating A Shared Journey

Change always begins with a grievance. There’s something people don’t like and they want it to be different. We like to see ourselves as heroes fighting for everything that’s right and we question the motivations of those who oppose our cause. When we believe in something passionately, it’s hard to see how anyone, in good conscience, can see it another way.

Yet consider recent research that finds our conceptions of even something so simple as a penguin vary so widely that the mention of the word evokes very different associations in all of us. Clearly, more emotionally-laden content, such as a policy issue or a business strategy is going to spark vigorous debates.

The stories we tell need to create a sense of safety around transformation, to emphasize a shared future. Yet all too often we begin our stories with silly talk about “disruption” or burning platforms. The storytellers seek to ennoble themselves as champions and demonize others who see things differently.

Yet if we truly care about change, we need to hold ourselves accountable to be effective messengers. That’s why the narratives we build about change need to focus on shared values and establish common ground upon which we can build a shared future.

The stories we tell are important. We need to choose them wisely and tell them well.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz


2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 22, 2023

    “The storytellers seek to ennoble themselves as champions and demonize others who see things differently.”

    Yeah, we see how that’s working out for us in the escalating conflicts worldwide.

  2. October 24, 2023

    Thanks so much for sharing Tom! I always appreciate your wisdom.


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