This is a story about a story.
It begins with a 53-page PowerPoint deck that looked like it had been spliced together by 20 people. Because it had. The CEO was hours away from sending it off to the home office and it was nowhere near presentable. She told me to put my best writer on it. So I did. Me.
The deck was serving as an executive report that would be read in advance of a quarterly meeting between local and national executives. Then it would serve as the discussion guide during the meeting itself. It was built on a template provided by the home office, seasoned liberally by slides shoe-horned in to make side trips, elaborations, and/or nuanced asides.
If the deck were human, it would be Sybil, a raving schizophrenic who is also grammatically challenged.
I have made peace with the fact that PowerPoint has replaced Word documents for executive reports, at least in my organization. The PPT format does have the advantage of breaking up dense information and allowing readers to scan through and pick up the important bits.
However, through this project I discovered that the creation of the deck was gumming up the leadership’s decision-making process. Finance and Sales teams were communicating with each other through slide iterations. Important decision gateways were delayed as executives ordered up slides to hammer out issues with each other. One person on the strategy team confided that as this process unfolded the deck became more fiction than reality – an ever-changing reflection of scenario gaming.
A small group of us was tasked to improve the PowerPoint process, which we took to mean the entire decision-making and meeting prep process. We agreed to use storytelling to create a core theme that would tie the year’s quarterly meetings together. We would come to learn that the mere creation of that story line also enhanced leaders’ decision-making.
The new process proceeded on two tracks: On one, the technical staff populated and maintained the template PowerPoint pages. On the other, a cross-departmental working group developed a regional narrative that played out in a Word document. The necessary details of forecasts and financial impacts were hammered out in the creation of the slides. And the narrative helped frame the strategic discussions.
We started building the narrative by first thinking of our region as the hero. What was its character? What challenges did it face? What strengths and tools were at its disposal? What would its journey to a happy ending entail?
I wrote the first draft, following Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey pattern:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (From Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949).
Iterations of the narrative were vetted through three layers of the organization: The analysts and planners; senior-level department heads; and the CEO’s team. I took input during real-time meetings, many aided by WebEx. These meetings were lively. I heard people aligning strategies across departments, clearing up ambiguities, resolving different interpretations, filling in knowledge gaps. On a few occasions, momentous decisions were made in the room, I think because the issues were clear and their context was established in the story line.
It wasn’t going exactly to my plan. I had hoped to keep the narrative short, with proof points indexed in the margins. But more stuff kept getting crammed into the document. But even though it was getting longer, it was getting better. With leadership’s current-state thinking crystallized in the Word document, they were free to make creative riffs off the main story line. They were out of the slide deck weeds and into the script for their conversation with national leaders.
With two meetings now under our belts, the folks who have gone through several cycles of these quarterly meetings report that the process is much less crazy-making. The most recent meeting was so smooth it was eerie. The national players pronounced it a productive meeting, and most importantly, a sound strategy.
The narrative will evolve through the year. Some of its chapters will be dialed up for strategic emphasis in future meetings. I will recommend a rewrite next year, and I hope it will ultimately take on more significance in guiding the meetings than does the PowerPoint deck.
And then we will live happily ever after.
Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, by Stephen Denning. This is a great read and provides specific examples of how business leaders use stories.
Anecdote, a blog and newsletter on corporate storytelling by Australian Shawn Callahan.