Compelling narratives for explaining strategy change

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 4 July 2008



Millett, S.M. (2008), "Compelling narratives for explaining strategy change", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 36 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Compelling narratives for explaining strategy change

Article Type: The strategist’s bookshelf From: Strategy & Leadership, Volume 36, Issue 4

The Secret Language of Leadership. How Leaders Inspire Action through Narrative

Stephen Denning, Jossey-Bass, 2007

Many exceptional business leaders, like their counterparts in the political arena, have learned that they can get their crucial points across by telling compelling stories. It’s a lesson that leaders at all levels should heed: when you need to communicate change, adopt the drama of narrative to make a lasting point.

This is the thesis of Stephen Denning in his new book The Secret Language of Leadership. Following up on his previous publications, Denning offers practical guidance on how business managers acting as transformational leaders can adapt the techniques of politicians (along with those of trial lawyers and screen writers) to persuade people to want to implement new business strategies. He understands every manager’s implementation problem, which is: to lead is not enough; to get others to follow is essential. In strategic management, for example, while much emphasis has been placed on formulating brilliant strategies, too little has been said about how to communicate them forcefully. Denning’s new book, therefore, provides a valuable service to business leaders.

He argues that too many business presentations imitate the formula of technical presentations: problem definition, analysis, and recommended solutions. Such presentations can easily lose audiences in bothersome details and totally miss the point. In contrast, Denning presents an effective alternative approach: use powerful story telling techniques to get attention and stimulate desire, and then reinforce the narrative with reasons. Business leaders, much like politicians, have to communicate difficult messages with a wide variety of listeners at multiple levels. They need to be compelling as well as substantive. To do so, they can use the power of narratives, or stories, to make their case. Effective stories depend not so much on the authority of the speaker as they do on the common sense and empathy of the audience. To illustrate is point, Denning offers his own narratives on the six enablers behind the secret language of leadership.

Denning observes that narratives are too often about the speaker and not about the audience. “But the hard part of communication is often figuring out what story the audience is currently living,” the author asserts. “Instead of talking down to people we need to talk with people. We need to be conducting conversations with the people we hope to lead.”

Good scenario writers are well aware of the power of stories to help organizations adopt future thinking. Because scenario planners cannot predict the future with precision, they use stories to illustrate the consequences of anticipated trends and help prepare for possible unexpected disruptive events (what scenario writers call “black swans”). Stories are also very effective in the creative steps of new product development, for the R&D as well as for marketing team, and in the innovation of work processes to achieve new levels of productivity.

Experienced scenario writers know that by telling powerful stories they compel attention for at least three reasons: the narratives are highly condensed versions of complex reality, they relate to the experiences and emotions of listeners, and they are entertaining. You could argue that good stories, in business as well as in literature, are like Robert Frost’s poems: they begin with delight and end in wisdom. In addition to Denning’s excellent advice, I would add that stories need to be simple, repeated, and consistent in the qualities that he explains well in this book.

Stephen M. MillettConsultant with Futuring Associates ( and co-author of The Manager’s Guide to Technology Forecasting and Strategy Analysis Methods.

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