A Strategy Story That Works

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Every great leader tells stories. But which
stories are the most important ones to tell?
That’s a question I’ve thought a lot
about. And after interviewing over 300 CEOs, leaders, and executives in 25
countries around the world about their use of storytelling in business, I
finally have an answer. I discuss all of my conclusions in the new book The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. But in
this article, let me lay out the first four and give you an example of one of
Four of the stories I think every leader
needs to be able to tell are about setting the direction for the organization.
Here they are:
Where we came from (our
founding story)
Why we can’t stay here (a
case-for-change story)
Where we’re going (a
vision story)
How we’re going to get there (a strategy story)
Every leader, regardless of what
functional discipline they represent, needs to be able to tell those four
stories. If you can, you have a much better chance of being able to get the
organization to go where you want them to go.
But telling these stories doesn’t just
mean having a clearly articulated set of talking points on those four topics.
Of course, you should have a clear
set of talking point on those four topics. But telling a compelling story about
those four ideas is not the same as just having good talking points.
A story is something special. A story is
a narrative about something that happened to someone. Human beings are far more
interested in – and compelled to act because of – stories than they are from
slides or bullet points or talking points or memos.
Here’s an example of #4 – a strategy
The cough/cold industry
is obviously a seasonal business. The overwhelming majority of cold medicines,
cough syrups, decongestants, and facial tissues are sold in either the winter
cold season or spring allergy season. And like many other businesses, there’s
usually one dominant brand in each of those categories, and then distant second
and third place brands.
One year, all the employees at one of
those second-place brands arrived at work to find something unexpected on their desks—a copy of what looked
like an article from The Wall Street Journal.
Except it wasn’t really a Journal
article. It was just a memo designed to look like one. Oddly, the date at the
top was six years into the future. And the byline identified the author as one
of the executives who worked in their business unit. So, while nobody was
fooled, it was all strange enough to convince everyone to read it. The title
was “How David Beat Goliath.”
a synopsis of what it said:
What’s the best strategy to win a basketball game if you
know your opponent is better than you?
Answer: don’t let them
play the game the way their way. Change the game. One strategy that’s worked
for a lot of out-classed teams is this – play a full-court press the entire
game. Your opponents have probably had very little practice against a
full-court press. And when they do finally get the ball on their side of the
court to make a play, they’ll be too exhausted to execute it.
And that’s exactly what
this second-tier brand in the cough/cold category did that year.
of only running advertisements during cold and allergy season, they started
advertising twelve months a year. The ground they gained in off-peak time gave
them a head start the next peak season.
Their next unconventional move was to stop marketing their
brand as only good for colds and allergies. For example, you can use facial
tissues to remove makeup or wipe away tears, not just blow your nose. And while
most brands market their products exclusively to women (who still make about 80
percent of the purchase decisions), they started advertising to men also. Those
new uses and new buyers grew their market share even more.
But they didn’t stop with just marketing changes. They
started innovating with their product as well: Self-dosing lids, designer
boxes, and packaging so soft you could curl up with it in bed when you’re sick.
Each new idea brought new sales.
The article went on to describe equally
radical changes the brand had made to retail shelf strategies, promotional
strategies, and new places to use the product nobody had ever thought of
before. The final line of the article said that after five years of executing
these strategies, this distant little second-place brand had just overtaken the
dominant brand in market share for the first time in its fifty-year history. “David 37%. Goliath 36%.”
At the bottom of the article was a
handwritten note that said, “Thanks for everything you did to achieve these
amazing results! —the boss.”
Notice this was a story, but it clearly
explained each piece of the brand’s strategy and why each one would work, using
layman’s terms, a brilliant analogy, and an inspiring story. By the afternoon,
people all over the office had pinned that article to their cubicle walls. And
for weeks, the author was stopped in the hallway by people he’d never met
before thanking him for writing such an inspiring article, and for explaining
the strategy in a way they could understand, appreciate, and most importantly,
A well-crafted strategy story like that can
do the same for you.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell, Lead with a Story, Sell with a Story, and Parenting with a Story. You can find Paul at www.leadwithastory.com.