March 13, 2012

Using Corporate Storytelling to Drive Change

The year was 1998. I was in Lincoln, Nebraska at the Cornhusker Inn just down the road from the University of Nebraska. I was traveling the country with my keynote: The Positive Power of Change. This particular event was the annual meeting of a mid-sized tele-communications company.

I had been hired to speak at the annual meeting because it was clear to the leadership team that something had to be done to address the issue of change in an upbeat and positive manner. The executive in charge of planning the meeting saw my promo video and chose me because he liked a couple of my stories. He also liked the subtitle of my speech – Get Over It.

“That’s what we need someone to tell them Doug,” the president told me on the phone. “They just need to get over it. But they’ll take it better if it comes from you.”

I was scheduled to speak at 9:00 am. The president was going to go on before me to make a couple of big announcements and then introduce me. This is the gist of what he said: “You’ve all heard about the pending merger and that means a lot of things are going to change around here. What you don’t know is that next year, at our annual meeting, 25% of you will be gone. Now I know that’s hard for you to take, so we’ve brought in a motivational speaker to help you move forward. Please welcome Doug Stevenson.”

What would you do in a situation like that? 100% of the people in the room were now wondering if they were going to be part of the 25% that would be let go. They were in shock. I was in shock! Luckily for me, I was prepared with the only ammunition that had any chance of succeeding in that situation. I had my stories.

I don’t buy into the rationale that people fear change. They fear the loss of control that change often brings. All the logic in the world won’t persuade someone to embrace change if they’re feeling out of control. At that moment, this audience didn’t need someone telling them that change is good and that everything would work out fine. Those are just words. What they needed was a diversion – something that could shift their perception from bad to good; from chaos to control; from hopeless to hopeful.

In the book, Influencer, The Power to Change Anything, the authors state: “Every time you try to persuade others through verbal persuasion, you suffer from your inability to select and share language in a way that reproduces in the mind of the listener exactly the same thoughts you are having. You say your words, but others hear their words, which in turn stimulate their images, their past history and their overall meaning – all of which may be very different from what you intended.”

In other words, when you or I speak, we’re speaking our language – our logic and words. To persuade others to change, we need to speak their language.  However, there is a language that is universal to all people, that transcends words and logic. That language is Story.

One of the stories I’ve been using to influence change is called my Airport Story. If you’ve read my book or listened to my Story Theater Audio Six Pack CDs or mp3s, you’re familiar with that story. In the story, I decide, over my better instincts, to fly to Kansas City for an after dinner keynote speech, on the same day as the speech.

You might already know that flying to a speaking engagement on the day of the speech is risky. This element immediately creates tension in the story and has the added benefit of making me look rather foolish. Whenever the storyteller reveals their human fallibility, it makes them more relatable. I am often a shining example of fallibility in my stories.

As the story unfolds, I encounter delay after delay and the tension builds. I take my audience with me on the journey to my connecting flight in O’Hare Airport, to the last seat in the last row of the plane as time is running out to get to the speech on time. They race through the Kansas City airport with me as I try to find my baggage and get out to the curb in time for the last shuttle bus. And they are right there with me as the shuttle bus passes me. They’re at the curb with me as I frantically search for a taxi. There are none. The frustration and panic builds to a crescendo, as it is apparent that my travel plan has spun out of control.

Everything that takes place up to this point is visual, emotional and visceral. I’ve created a dramatic diversion for my audience and, for a few moments, their fears about losing control are folded into my story about losing control. My frustration and desperation at the curb is theirs as well. I’m not the only one at the curb; they are with me. They’re in the story.

Now what? That’s the question the audience is asking. Okay, you’ve screwed up and your life was spiraling out of control. What did you do? At the same time, they are asking that question for their current situation: What am I supposed to do?

In the story, while I’m standing at the curb, I make the shift from being a victim of circumstances to taking control of the situation. After taking a few deep breaths and getting centered, I calmly consider my options. Parked right in front of me is a long, white, stretch limousine. Since I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, I ask the driver if he can give me a ride. It turns out that he can.

The problem got solved. I made it to my keynote speech on time, and all was well with the world. The crisis was solved, the disaster averted. But what’s the point? There has to be a lesson from this story that helps my audience in the midst of their lousy news?

The lesson is: Look for the limo. When change happens, focus on solutions instead of problems. Look for the limo. The limo is the metaphorical “better solution”. The story proves that sometimes things work out for the best.

Storytelling drives change and the way people handle change by taking them on a visceral experience that engages their full attention. Then the strategically crafted point of the story provides a solution and literally points people in a new direction.

For the people in my audience that day in Lincoln, my story gave them hope. It helped them realize that they had an alternative to becoming a victim of their circumstances. They, too, could Look for the Limo.

When you have the right story, and it’s crafted in a conscious manner to engage people and make the point you want to make, it works like magic. Story is the language of influence and gives you the power to persuade. Learn to master the art of storytelling and you will harness the power to drive change in a positive way.


It’s not what Doug has done that’s important, it’s what he can do for you. That said…

Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, is a corporate storytelling in business expert. He is a professional speaker, trainer and coach and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method.

Follow Doug on Twitter @DougStoryCoach

His keynote, training and executive coaching clients include Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Bristol Myers Squibb, Wells Fargo, Amgen, Volkswagen, Century 21, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

His 10 CD – How to Write and Deliver a Dynamite Speech audio learning system is a workshop in a box. It contains an 80-page follow along workbook. Learn more at:

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