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The Talking Cure: Pay Attention to Counter Narratives

by Bennett Voyles

January 16, 2017

Paying attention to counter narratives can make your organization stronger

This is a four-part series on storytelling. In the first and second article in the series, we looked at the case for storytelling as a sales and management tool and what the necessary ingredients are for a successful management or sales story. In the third article, we looked at how better storytelling can help you in your career.

Part 4: Why listening is the future of storytelling

What’s the future of corporate storytelling? Considered in the abstract, that might seem like a silly question. After all, telling and retelling stories is one of humanity’s most durable characteristics: Harvard linguist Michael Witzel has argued that most of the world’s mythologies grew out of a single set of stories first told in Africa 130,000 years ago.

However, although our penchant for storytelling may not change any time soon, the use of storytelling use inside the corporation does seem to be shifting in two ways. First, as noted earlier in this series, storytelling is becoming recognized as a trainable skill. Second, and possibly more importantly, the Internet is making it increasingly difficult for companies to control a single version of their own story.

The open architecture of Twitter, for example, has made it a slippery tool for companies trying to promote their own narratives. For instance, a 2012 McDonald’s campaign intended to showcase positive stories about farmers who supply the fast food chain, #McDStories, was “tweetjacked” by activists who used the heading to send out a flood of negative stories about food poisoning, low labor standards, and animal welfare concerns.

Similarly, a 2013 Twitter Q&A by JP Morgan turned into another PR disaster as a chat about career opportunities at the bank turned into an avalanche of 18,000+ comments from people still angry about the financial crisis of 2008:

  • Does the sleaze wash off with a regular shower, or do you have to use something special like babies tears? #AskJPM
  • I have Mortgage Fraud, Market Manipulation, Credit Card Abuse, Libor Rigging and Predatory Lending. Am I diversified? #AskJPM
  • Do your clothes fit better since you don’t have the added weight of a soul? #AskJPM

Companies need to get used to a world where they no longer control the dialogue, argues Marianne Wolff Lundholt, Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Narratological Studies at the University of Southern Denmark and co-author of an online reference book, The Living Handbook of Narratology. “In a sense, the organization is reduced to a co-narrator among other co-narrators rather than being the single source of voice,” she writes, in an email.

Wolff Lundholt and other scholars argue that this transparency will be a good thing, discouraging companies from overselling their social and environmental accomplishments. In the future, the company will still be able to communicate its value proposition, she writes, but now it will also need to accommodate what Wolff Lundholt calls counter-narratives — stories from customers, employees, or other stakeholders that offer an alternative view of the organization’s actions and goals.

Traditionally, organizations have worked hard to minimize the attention paid to those variants, but Wolff Lundholt and other scholars in an emerging branch of literary theory known as narratology argue that this is a mistake. A better approach, they say, is to collect and analyze those stories as a way to understand what the company could be doing better.

In two recent studies, Wolff Lundholt collected employee counter-narratives at a Danish housing company and a global industrial company headquartered in Denmark that has a sales office in China. These stories gave managers in both organizations more insight about how their company was perceived by its stakeholders and what they could be doing better.

“In both cases, management was very surprised by the concerns circulating in the organization. Being able to address some of the concerns up front was valuable in itself,” Wolff Lundholt writes. “But also insights regarding the communication forms was valuable. Do the employees value town hall meetings? Why? Why not? What should we do differently?”

This kind of listening may not be easy, Wolff Lundholt believes it’s worth it. “If employees are encouraged to speak up — whether they agree or not with the strategy and goals — a more open communication environment will be established and this will eventually have a positive impact on employee commitment and engagement. This will also create a more innovative strategy process where management will get valuable feedback,” she writes.

Sir Cary Cooper, the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the University of Manchester’s Alliance Manchester Business School, agrees that managers should try to make more proactive use of social media. “I think it could impact corporate culture in getting people’s opinions before they’ve made a decision, that’s number one, and number two, once a decision has been made — because in most organizations they just make them without consultation anyway — finding what are the fears and worries and how can they minimize the negative consequences,” he says.

In sales too, storytelling expert Michael Bosworth of Mike Bosworth Leadership advocates what he calls connective listening — which he defines as “listening not just for the data and the facts but for the emotion and the feelings behind the story.”

Bosworth’s sales method, which he first developed as a 28-year-old sales rep for Xerox, is to use stories as a way to start a conversation. He advises that the rep tell a 90-second story about how a product has helped one of the prospect’s peers as a way to elicit a longer conversation with the prospect about his or her challenges, which the rep later recounts in a voice mail – making it possible to achieve a closer alignment between the vendor and the customer.

In the end, the people with the best stories are the people who are listening the most carefully, storytelling experts agree. “You really have to be interested,” says Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, a Melbourne, Australia, storytelling consultancy. “It comes down to these real, basic emotions of curiosity and showing empathy and wanting to listen.”

However, this does not mean that the organization will be utterly powerless. Despite social media, organizations still retain a lot of power to shape stories by shaping the storytellers’ experiences. For example, the US military enjoyed more public support for the long-running war in Iraq than it enjoyed in Vietnam partly because of the success of its program of “embedding” reporters in military units for a long period of time.

The program of sending reporters out into the field with soldiers yielded coverage more positive than military public relations people had even hoped, writes Robert Cialdini in his recent book Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. “[T]he embedded journalists — whose reports received an astonishing 71 percent of front-page war coverage during the conflict – were not reporting in any meaningful way on the broader political issues involved, such as the justifications for the war (as an example, the absence of weapons of mass destruction was mentioned in just 2 percent of all stories) or the operation’s impact on US standing and power abroad,” he notes.

The sheer bulk of these reports, Cialdini argues, taught the public “the main media message you should be paying attention to here is the conduct of the war, not the wisdom of it.”

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