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Tony Quinlan tells stories with passion, a passion for communication, a passion for emotional health and a passion for people.
Having worked with large and small organisations to improve their internal and external communications and culture, he has a unique vision of how organisations can communicate at a heart-felt level with their audiences. Having turned around press perceptions of IBM in Scotland, worked with UNICEF in the UK and run small voluntary organisations, he has the experience and insight to create powerful communications for any organisations.
While working as a communications consultant with international corporations, he also was heavily involved in the strategic planning and day-to-day running of a children's charity in South London. The combination of handling audiences of 1,000 children for four hours at a time and working with senior directors and vice-presidents of US companies was the perfect way to keep his head on the ground.
Research while studying for an MBA into the historic use of stories and myths has resulted in the application of stories as a solution to many problems within organisations - to astonishing effect.
The greatest satisfaction, he says, is telling the story that turns on the light for someone - and then watching that light spread.
Areas of Expertise
Press and public relations
Press interview preparation
Strategic message management
Emotional work environment and styles
Designs and leads workshops in leadership, team building and change management; presentation skills, creativity and learning.
Take two companies – Alpha Engineering Ltd and Beta Production plc. Both have similar histories, results, products and geography. They are both the subject of takeover bids. Now, let’s loiter around the coffee machine and listen to the conversations going on.
In Alpha, we get the latest in TV soaps, post mortems on last night’s sports, gripes about colleagues and managers and a downbeat analysis of the takeover – maybe it’s time to jump ship before the “rationalization” in which most Alphazoids will surely lose their jobs. Of course it’s all the fault of incompetent management for getting them into this mess in the first place. They are loyal employees who turn up at 9am every day, do an honest day’s work, and go home at 5.30 each evening – innocent victims.
In Beta, there are the expected analyses of TV, sports and this morning’s problems, but there is a different feel to the conversation regarding the takeover. To Betans, it’s not necessarily negative – they are, after all, looking to achieve something concrete, and this is merely another step on the way. Betans work for a common purpose – to change how people see widgets. They work the same hours as their colleagues at Alpha, but they achieve more and are more optimistic in their outlook.
The difference between these two companies is crucial because stories are how we communicate our emotions – and emotions are self-reinforcing. If attitudes are negative, then your organisation is on a downward emotional spiral – with consequent problems for management. If attitudes are optimistic, the spiral points upwards – with benefits to match.
Why is this important? The key to this scenario is stories – an age-old tool for communication that is suddenly coming under the spotlight for companies. In recent months, Tom Peters; Howard Gardner, Harvard Professor of Cognition; and John W Hunt, London Business School Professor of Organisational Development have all identified storytelling and narratives as crucial to the culture – and hence success – of organisations.
Corporate stories are nothing new – but there are new ways of utilising them. Stories are like journeys – and so we will begin at the beginning.
Your company journey – where are you starting from?
Before you can decide the route you want to take, you need to know where you are. How do you take an emotional audit of an organisation?
The best place to start is where people gather. The coffee machine, smokers corner or the local pub after work? Here comes the tricky part – be unobtrusive, don’t be tempted to get involved or ask questions. Just listen. Informal stories will tell you a lot –war stories and gossip will give you a clear picture of morale and, if you manage to listen dispassionately, the true perceived culture. Prepare to be surprised.
Listening to stories is illuminating. Research by London Business School has shown that workforces tell stories to determine what they believe is the likely outcome of events. Stories are powerful in reinforcing beliefs and emotions and creating virtuous or vicious circles that can dramatically affect the morale – and bottom line – of a company.
The framework and tone will give you a snapshot of what people feel. The chances are that you now identified the keynote emotion – anger, optimism, frustration, despair – which is roughly equivalent to knowing what your company profits are. While useful, the full emotional profit and loss sheet would be more valuable.
Story workshops can gather more detail on the emotions held about a company. This includes the main negative feelings, but more constructively, also the positive beliefs people have about the organisation. This can then guide and fuel how you proceed.
Where are you going?
Successful companies have clear goals and visions – in some form. Few companies are content with “Survive to the end of the year.” Having defined where you are going – how do you communicate that? Then how do you engage your workforce and your customer in that?
Most companies that articulate where they are going do so explicitly through a list of principles or a goal. If you are changing a culture, then the first thing that gets created is the Corporate Ten Commandments (Thou shalt serve thy customer; Thou shalt make quality thy goal; Thou shalt not waste money; Thou shalt be innovative). Shortly thereafter, the Corporate Ten Commandments are the first thing to hit the bin.
Lists and explicit communications are rational and logical – they appeal to the left side of the brain, where also resides cynicism. The first response is “Here we go again.” The second is to stop reading – usually around commandment number five – and the last is to forget them altogether.
How many of the Ten Commandments can you remember off the top of your head? And these are commandments that carry rather more weight in society than any corporate mission.
Instead, move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, with less emphasis on commandments, more on parables. Parables are only stories that demonstrate expected behaviours – and are memorable (The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son), appealing and clear in their message. Why? Because stories bring in the right brain which then deals with the richness of the senses, images and patterns.
Stories also involve and stimulate the limbic system – the part of our brain connected with our emotions and the gateway to long-term memory. Emotions are intricately linked with loyalty and passion, innovation and fun – exactly the values you want to foster.
So, because our brains are hard-wired to create and respond to stories, mission stories work better than mission statements. But how do you use them? There are many ways, but we can boil them down to two approaches –fact-based and fictional.
Just the facts ma’am!
Visionary companies like Hewlett-Packard and Nike are great exponents of the art of factual storytelling. Hewlett-Packard is creating a corporate archive of HP mythology – key stories that illustrate company values. Senior Nike executives spend time telling new employees tales from Nike’s history.
Taking the company’s history and retelling it in mythic structures is a powerful way of maintaining values, behaviours and group cohesion. Porras and Collins in their study of visionary companies identified a pervasive mythology of heroic deeds as one of the elements that set these companies apart from rivals.
WebTV, a company founded to “enhance television”, has used stories to maintain its focus, passion and cohesion throughout a takeover by Microsoft. Despite the potential upheaval, the company lost few employees and the momentum and culture has been retained – along with the passion and innovation.
Once upon a time
Stories can also be fictional like the New Testament’s parables. A fable written as a clear metaphor for the organisation will engage an audience’s emotions. Simple shorthand can then be used to refer back to it, regenerating that engagement instantly.
When you hear the words Kryptonite, Lois Lane and “Up, up and away” – what principles come to mind? Chivalry, integrity and power used for the common good. And all this in only a handful of words.
Corporate stories that set out a powerful vision and goal for the future also illustrate the key values and behaviours needed to attain it and even highlight some of the obstacles. Not only are these clear, but they are memorable – and more likely to be acted upon.
What makes stories even more appealing is that they create greater leeway for mistakes and obstacles. In the left-hand side of the brain, if management says we are now an innovative company, the first time we see behaviour that contradicts this, our brain informs us that the statement was obviously wrong and can be disregarded.
A story about innovation – and associated trials– appeals to the other part of our mind. When we see conflicting behaviour, we instead think “There’s one of those challenges – we must persevere. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Another powerful benefit of using stories – not only does it describe where we’re going, but that the road may be difficult.
So we know where we’re starting from and we know where we’re going. Stories – or storytelling – is one of the keys to great leadership, according to both Tom Peters, business guru, and Howard Gardner, Harvard Professor in Cognition and Education. If you’re looking to lead anyone – customers, employees or populace – then get your story ready and know how to tell a great and convincing story. Not a story of perfection and error-free strategy, but a story of obstacles overcome, goals achieved and resolution rewarded.
Tony Quinlan, Chief Storyteller