Using Story to Drive Change

Last week I went to a coffee chat hosted by a local change management organization. It was one of those networking events where we all stand around at the beginning and either awkwardly try to find someone to chat with and appear to belong or easily locate our friends and catch up with them. This particular meeting was centered around the idea of using story to drive change, so after the appropriate amount of mingling time we all sat down and listened to a speaker tell us about the benefits of including story in change management.

I think this is a good idea, and I feel like the majority of my generation is pretty gung ho on story – I’m not sure I know anyone personally that would say, “Yeah, I hear you, but nah. I think stats and graphs are the only way to go. There’s really no place at all for story in my work.”

That being said, I don’t necessarily think we regularly use it as an effective tool or even know how to implement it. I wonder about the answers to questions like: Story is great, but how do I actually start using it? Actually, why is story so important to use? What does it offer that other tools don’t? When is it appropriate? How do I address the person that tells their story as if it trumps all other information? Do I use my own life experiences? Can I use stories I heard? How do I intertwine story with my charts & graphs? How do I use story when this process is so long? Change management isn’t just a one hour presentation after all. And how do I craft a story that’s compelling, anyway?

Those questions weren’t really the point of this presentation. During the Q & A session someone asked, “I agree story is great and useful. But I find that I most identify with stories that I already agree with. How do we use story to create change?” This was a group of change facilitators after all, and I think she had a valid point. A story most resonates with us if we can imagine ourselves in it or if it applies to us in some way. A lot of times that means we already agree with the point and appreciate the reminder.  But what if the main character in the story is someone not like us at all? What if we can’t recognize ourselves or our values anywhere in the story? Most likely we tune it out.

This became the breakout question, “How do we use story to bring about change?” Some people said it can’t be done. Story’s place in change facilitation comes later. We have to rely on other tools to do the actual changing, and bring story in as a later component to the work. As a sort of deal closer or rally call, perhaps.

I think they’re wrong. I think story is and can be an integral part of any change you want to produce, whether it be a long or short process. I think as long as we remember the key –  the listener must find themselves in our story – we can successfully use story as a means to bring about change.

So how do we change-makers – business owners, managers, team leaders, coaches, parents, citizens – use story to lead change?

Know the Listener

We know the key – the listener must be able to put themselves into the story. That means we first have to know the listener – their fears, their motivation, their desires. We have to know the listener’s situation well enough to be able to locate the right story. And the right story in this case is one in which the subject starts off in the same place the listener currently is in. The subject then goes through a change, the very change we want to the listener to consider, and ends up better for it.

If our listener isn’t on board yet, a story highlighting someone being excited about the change or getting the troops rallied won’t do the trick. We need a story that matches them – about someone who was hesitant, who didn’t believe it would work – for the same reason they’re not sure it will work, but went through the process and found success.

Build Your Collection

If first we need to know the listener, second we need a collection of stories.  We might a long history we can draw from with our own clients & experiences and we need to spend some time thinking back for what might be applicable to bring into our repertoire.

Or we might need to actively seek out stories that represent our point. Movies, books, and our colleagues can all be valid sources.

So if you’re business owner realigning company values, a manager looking to inspire change in an employee, a team leader wanting to bring about a new culture, or a parent wanting to help your child grow, start collecting your stories.

Look for stories that speak to or demonstrate the same core aspect that you’re working toward. As an overly simple example, if you’re working with an employee on something like timeliness, be sure the story speaks to that issue in some way. Don’t choose one about rallying enthusiasm or finding your passion. If you’re instilling a culture of doing what’s best for the customer, no matter what, choose a story that speaks to that specific value.

I know it seems overly simplistic, but I can’t even tell you how many times I had a story that illustrated a point for a presentation only to realize as I further developed the point that story actually didn’t apply at all. Double check that the point you’re making matches the point of your story.

Look for the stories in which there is change where someone goes from one way of thinking or acting, to another. For the most bang for your buck, spend time developing the beginning – the part where your listener will find themselves. Give your listener the chance to recognize themselves. And don’t trivialize the process. Real change is big, it’s scary and can be overwhelming. Make space for that, and let the listener know you get where they’re at.


Once you’ve found a good fit, refer back to the story, talking about it, alluding to it, and making it a part of your culture. Make it an icon that can be used to inspire, encourage and remind people of the end goal.  (Although, be thoughtful about this. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.)

What do you think? Agree? Have examples of using story to bring about change? Disagree and have a reason why? Need help implementing story in your approach? Let me know!



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