Ruins of Willkarakay

Telling stories is a natural human activity from time immemorial.  Creating a succinct and informative story to describe a business need or the future of an organization is challenging.  Stories are not bulleted presentation slides, although those tools can be used.  Rather stories at this level are longer narratives, or at the very least they are like the paintings in Lascaux Caves which evoke a longer narrative. Narrative storytelling is not a tool typically found or appreciated in status meetings, the process of building a narrative that describes a business need or the journey an organization must take to achieve a goal often needs facilitation.  Three facilitation tools are commonly used to help a team or an individual to build a story in a business environment. They are:

Context setting – A few of my friends write as at least part of their livelihood.  I am not sure I have ever heard one these professional writers say they begin a book or article without an idea of what they want to write about or where they want their protagonist’s journey to end. All writers need to begin with some context to direct the writing process.  A facilitator needs to do the pre-work to discover and understand the goal and the context surrounding of the storytelling session.   I suggest meeting with the session’s sponsor and a few of the participants in order to flesh out the context.  Consider these interview questions as a tool to get the stakeholder talking and to keep him or her talking:

  • Tell me about your vision of —— (insert stated rationale for the session)?

If this new:

  • Why is this change or functionality important to you? To the organization? To your customer?
  • What is your darkest fear if this change does not occur (or new functionality is not implemented)?
  • What is the greatest risk to accomplishing this change?

While many of these questions can create anchor bias (binding a team to a specific idea) the facilitator still needs to ask the questions to a subset of the team beforehand so the facilitator can prepare to help the entire team.  The pre-session serves multiple purposes:

  1. Creating the goal of the storytelling session.
  2. Gathering input for seed questions or scenarios to jumpstart the story session.
  3. Identifying pre-reading or research the storytelling team might need. 

Seed questions – Seed questions provide a structure that guides the session toward the desired goal without putting words in the team’s mouths.  The facilitator uses seed questions when the team seems to be becoming blocked or starting to wander off track. The facilitator should look for these situations and try to intercede before the team reaches gridlock.   All seed questions require situational context to be effective.  If a team is envisioning next year’s organizational structure, asking whether the local sports team will win isn’t relevant and could easily take the session off course.  Typical seed questions often focus on the classics of who, what, why, where and how much.  Seed questions might include phrases like:

  • What does  . . .  look like?
  • When you meet the goal . . .   
  • Who is impacted when  . . .
  • What problems do you anticipate getting to . . .
  • Could you say more about . . .
  • How would leadership need to change . . .

‘How’ questions are better at getting the team to discuss a process or journey. Create a set of seed questions based on the goal and research before the storytelling session. However, use what is happening in the session to customize the seed questions.

Listening – The facilitator needs to understand the goal so that that they can help the team keep the right pace and to stay on track. Active listening techniques such as repeating back, showing interest and asking to hear more about a point are useful to establish listening credibility with the team. Listening is critical to developing a level of rapport that will help establish the facilitator’s authority which he or she needs to re-direct the conversation. 

While storytelling may be in our DNA, but we often need a little help crafting a story in safe environment.  Storytelling while sitting around table in a typical corporate conference room often needs a bit more help, which is where the facilitator needs to step in.  When a facilitator steps in they need to have pre-planning and structure on their side.