Who tells your story?

[ZacTax Roundup] September 2020

I can still remember the floor of my elementary school cafeteria as I sat, legs criss-crossed, hands on my chin. Waiting. Hungry. Bored, probably. How long can you keep the attention of a couple dozen eight-year olds, after all? As we started to get restless, a special visitor came in the room. Within minutes, we were transported.

No longer could we feel the cold vinyl flooring on our legs. We felt the warmth of the desert sun in the afternoon, just before it’s substituted for the evening cold. No longer were our senses subject to the familiar hues and hums of the fluorescent lights. We could now see the vivid red and orange colors of the American Southwest, and hear the wooden wagon wheels creak as they carried their travelers across a land as barren as it was majestic.

We became part of the story, fully engulfed and engaged as a voice continued to describe our travel deeper into wilderness. Along the way we encountered pain and hardship, but persevered through the harsh terrain. We had entered what is known today as the Four Corners, home of the Navajo Nation.

I never visited the Navajo region, Monument Valley, or the Four Corners. But to this day when someone asks if I’ve been there, my initial response is Yes. As an elementary student, a storyteller took me there. Through their words, they placed memories in my mind as if I were standing in Monument Valley among the Navajo Nation. 

Great storytellers have the ability to transport our minds to far off places, making us a participant in the story.

The art of storytelling is ancient, and in many cultures it is still a primary means of passing important information to new generations. In today's world, with a wide open firehose of information flowing in from multiple perspectives, storytelling can provide an opportunity for both distraction and focus.

It’s becoming harder and harder for leaders to cut through the noise, according to Nick Morgan. The president and founder of Public Words argues that, “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.” On the other hand, stories create sticky memories by attaching emotion to your message.

Coming out of graduate school, many future city managers are trained to craft messages with a pro and con viewpoint. We then weigh these contrasting positions and provide a professional recommendation. Our brains, however, do not always translate facts and figures in order to come to a conclusive decision. Instead, many leaders are transitioning to tell stories, because stories stick with us.

We are constantly finding ourselves in a struggle to deliver the correct information and analysis to decision makers. However, many of us feel a sense of loss when policymakers make a “political” decision rather than what we would deem to be the “right” decision. At times we can blame ourselves, the political culture of our community, or perhaps even the ignorance of our elected officials (though of course we would never actually say that…). In a world clouded by often hyperbolic political messages and sensationalized social media content, can city organizations still make sound local decisions? We believe the answer is yes, and rekindling the art of the story can help.

It’s funny how quickly the tools we make can change us. Imagine whether Aesop’s Fables would have stood the test of time if they had been written as a series of corporate memos, or a PowerPoint presentation with 15 bullet points per slide. Our lives our so busy now. We want things to be succinct, tidy, and neatly packaged.

When it comes to establishing and instilling organizational culture and norms, storytelling can be extremely helpful. Culture is not created through the subject of a manager’s email, it is created when managers continually tell the story about who we are and why we do things.

Instead of only writing down our organizational values, or posting them on break room bulletin boards, leaders can tell stories about times when those values were lived out (and, perhaps just as effectively, when they weren’t). With vivid details and explanation, the examples of how we have impacted lives and bettered our communities began to stick and create a strong employee culture.

In an age full of increasingly loud and extraneous noise, we can all use more storytelling. But how do we get started? How can we use the power of storytelling to improve our organizational culture and decision making? Here are some ideas.

# Craft your message

Duh, right? What’s the point of telling stories if you don’t have anything to say? As a leader, you’ll probably have some overarching goals and priorities that you’ll want to press. Spend some time really hashing them out.

If you want to tell good stories, you have to outline your purpose. As Simon Sinek argues, “[a] significant part of feeling value beyond our compensation is working on something bigger than ourselves.” Have you really defined what that “something” is? Ideally, that “something” should be applicable to everyone in your organization; easily communicated; resilient to political, technical, and social change; and something ultimately unachievable. In other words, your mission should be something that will live on for the next generation of your organization’s leadership to keep working toward.

But you don’t have to limit your storytelling to big picture things. While your mission is critical (and theoretically unachievable), you work toward that mission through tactics, and those tactics often need to be sold as well. Whether you’re pitching a zoning change, selling a new community service program, or hiring a new IT support technician, craft your message around the needs those choices are meeting, and how they tie into the larger mission.

# Develop and hone your talking points

Storytelling is about more than just a narrative you tell once. Sometimes, storytelling means staying on-message over long stretches of time in varying situations. Developing and honing your organizational talking points can help with the long-game of storytelling.

In my previous job as a city manager, I had a number of sayings about how we treated our residents. The two most common were, “We puke honesty” and “We provide white glove service.” These were the primary mental models of how we should interact with our residents.

Now, just repeating those two phrases would not have resonated with the listener, no matter how vividly the term “puke” might seem to our staff. What does it mean to puke honesty? To provide white glove service? It took a combination of internal stories, external stories (about other organizations), and leading by example to ingrain what these phrases meant. But once we got there, the term “puke honesty” had a fully-formed context and became a story on its own. Integrating the same talking points into multiple stories adds further emphasis and provides the listener the ability to merge multiple prospectives, gaining a well-rounded understanding of the message.

As another example, consider how Steve Jobs approached his goal of having Apple viewed as more than just a “technology” company. According to him, Apple’s DNA was “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities.” His primary critique of Microsoft was that they had “no taste” and didn’t infuse any culture into their products.

Apple cared about art, they cared about design, and they cared about attention to detail. These were the talking points on which Jobs continuously harped, and they paid off in making Apple one of the most valuable and admired companies in the world; and as Apple fans, we can’t help but see a clear shift in the culture since Jobs’ death in 2011. Without the same talking points to guide the story, the company’s goals seem to have shifted.

# Gather your stories

Storytelling is a two-way street. In order to tell great stories, you need material. As an organizational leader, you need to ask questions, be vulnerable, and create a culture of allowing honest conversations.

It is fascinating how quickly folks will share the bad, and how much effort can be required to get them to also share the good. In order to build up an organization, a leader must be proactive in collecting the good. Many of our office conversations focus on the negative interactions, but if leaders make a point to randomly share their positive interactions, the information gates will slowly open.

You can build on this momentum by asking targeted questions of your staff: “Tell me about a time when…” some superlative event happened, something that was particularly emotional or an “Aha!” moment, can be a good way to start a conversation. Follow up with questions like “what did you learn?” and “how did that make you feel?” for a better understanding of the story and how to connect it to your message.

You can also solicit stories from your staff and residents, particularly as you approach major milestones, anniversaries, or decision-points. You’ve probably already heard many of the stories about bad interactions between your staff and the public; human nature is far more likely to complain about a problem than praise a positive experience. If you want more positive stories, you’ll probably have to ask for them!

While internal stories are especially powerful for culture sharing, you don’t need to be limited to only stories from your organization. Especially if you are trying to change something, you might need to provide examples from other organizations or even other fields. Just take care that they form a coherent message. The purpose is to create sticky memories, and consistency is key for that.

# Founding myths

The quintessential business story, the subgenre with which we’re all most familiar, is the founder’s myth. From Romulus and Remus, to Newton’s Apple, to Silicon Valley garages, we all love a good founding story. Some of them are simply stories without a larger motivational angle. Others identify the core struggle the founders set out to fix, describe the principles used to solve the problem, and showcase the diligent work that went into making that fix a reality. These three ingredients are the secret sauce of a founding myth, and can provide a sort of organizational North Star, regardless of how true the story is.

We were blessed, in our last stop as public managers, to have an Honest-to-God founding story. Our community’s founding leaders used a bit of cleverness and some legislative sleight of hand to extract themselves from a neighbor’s ETJ, forming a new city out of whole cloth for the express purpose of not taxing the wealth of its inhabitants. Forty-plus years later, this story continues to guide the community and its leaders. Operating with no property tax remains the primary goal of the city, around which all other decisions are oriented. It was one of the first stories told to new administrative hires (often in the interview process) to help them understand how our decision-making process was guided.

Most of our readers will not be in that fortunate situation. Many won’t even have enough material to fudge a little on the story (and let’s face it, most of the founder’s myths you’re familiar with are probably embellished at least a smidge). Plenty of cities were formed because a river, port, or rail station happened to be there, and the city just grew up organically around it. And while that’s an awesome story in itself (in a Strong-Townsian, organic and incremental growth sort of way), it’s not always obvious what guiding principles should be derived from it.

Perhaps you manage a smaller piece of the puzzle: a department or division, a new task force created to address a specific problem, etc. Focus on what makes your organization different than the average. Is employee retention better? Talk about how much happier your employees are, on how much the governing bodies focus on people, pay, and benefits, and how that directly enhances the customer service and product delivered to your residents.

# You don’t have to be a good public speaker if you have the right message

Don't let a lack of confidence in your speaking skills keep you from stepping outside your comfort zone. You don’t have to be able to work a crowd or be the most eloquent off-the-cuff speaker to be effective. A succinct, detailed, and organized story doesn’t always need told by a Toastmasters expert. If you have a great story to tell, it will shine through even the most awkward of deliveries.

A great example of this is Tony Hseih, who until this August was the CEO of Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer. Several years ago, he spoke about his experience as CEO and how important culture was to the company. The thing is, he comes across a bit nerdy, a bit socially awkward, and clearly nervous speaking in front of this crowd. But his stories clearly define his brand’s identify and the cultural expectations placed on his employees. The message and imagery stick, regardless of your first impression of him as a speaker.

If you’re short on time, you can skip to the 11:05 mark for a powerful customer service story, but the whole video is worth watching.

# Don’t be a hypocrite

In order for a story to stick, the storyteller must have some level of trust. Or at the very least, not be distrusted. If you are using stories to instill organizational culture you must also follow the guidelines embedded in your stories.

For example, we frequently speak about valuing quality over quantity when it comes to our labor force. And in smaller organizations, you really don’t have many other options! For one small city we have worked with, this was among the most important principles for their organizational culture. Management pushed hard with their staff and council to do more work with fewer people. New positions wouldn’t be considered until there was a tangible pain being felt across the board. After all, once you add a new position, it’s hard to go the other way.

In return for this extra effort, this city provided some of the highest pay and best health coverage of any city in the state of its size (or any size, in some cases). Training was a point of emphasis, as was prioritizing culture fit over skills when hiring.

This isn’t an easy road to go down. In fact, it can be quite difficult. But everyone pitched in, all the way up to the city manager’s chair. There were no administrative assistants to schedule meetings or gatekeep; employees cross-trained for multiple roles to cover vacation, sick, and family leave (which meant that they didn’t have to stress when it was their time to relax); even the city manager and assistant city manager would answer the phones and take utility payments.

By putting their money where their mouth is (both literally and figuratively), management was able to get buy-in for this concept. The demands to do more with less didn’t ring hollow because everyone across the organization lived by the same standard.

Wrap up

Storytelling is hard, but the benefits of having a firm foundation of who you are, what your organization stands for, and what it strives to do will far outweigh the risk. Many managers get frustrated when their organization or themself becomes defined by an uncontrolled narrative.

They may say, “That’s not me, I am not that person, and they should know our city does not do that.” But do they? Should they know that? If you are not out there telling your story both internally and externally, it will be written by someone else.

Facts and figures can help make your case; rational arguments are important. But as Stephen Few says, numbers rarely speak for themselves. You have to give them context. You have to tell their story.

And now for something completely different…

We’re not big on public shaming, but plenty of others are. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, as public officials, we live in a fishbowl where every action we take might be the next viral image… Always be on your best behavior!

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