Why stories change behaviour

According to McKinsey’s research 70% of all transformation efforts fail [1]. Leading a transformation is not easy. Change managers usually deal with a lot of resistance.

In my last article ‘certainty in uncertain times’ I discussed methods to deal with resistance when implementing change. However, to prevent resistance is better than to cure resistance. In this article, the topic of storytelling will be introduced. One of the tools to deal with resistance and to create support for change. Furthermore, it will be explained why you should use it as a change instrument. In the second article, I will share the most important elements of a good change story.

Storytelling is the most ancient way of communicating. Already in prehistory people used stories to communicate. The differences between storytelling and a ‘common’ message are the narrative elements. A story always includes a beginning, middle, and end. It has a hero/protagonist (the person who the story is about), supporters, opponents and an obstacle or conflict [2].

Because storytelling is the most natural way of communicating it is easier for the narrator to create connection, purpose, and meaningfulness with the listeners [2]. Think about it, when you read a good book or watch a good movie it is easier to remember and listen to the provided information than when you listen to a PowerPoint presentation in a workshop.

This is also the reason why storytelling is used in many fields such as marketing, politics, and change. During an organizational transformation, subordinates are usually looking for the same aspects (connection, purpose, and meaningfulness of the transformation). This is the reason why storytelling is such a powerful tool to use during a transformation. This will be illustrated with an example.

The example that is given is of Steven Denning; Program Director at the World Bank from 1990 to 2000. He struggled with promoting an idea in the organization. He was convinced to transform the organization into a knowledge sharing organization but had a hard time finding support. He tried reports, figures, and fancy Powerpoints, but no one would listen. Until he used a story about a health worker in Zambia:

The story took place in Kamana, a small village in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world. The health worker was searching for a way to treat malaria and he simply found this information on the website of the Centers for Disease Control. He saved many lives.

After Denning told his colleagues he asked them to imagine a world in which the World Bank would be able to share its knowledge to fight poverty. Denning’s colleagues were finally able to listen to Denning and even became promoters of the idea. That year knowledge became an official corporate priority at the organization. The reason why this story changed people’s mindset is that the story provided a purpose for the World Bank. People were able to emotionally connect with the health worker and wanted to become him. Furthermore, this story created meaningfulness, it illustrated how information on a website could make a difference for other people.

Based on the example above it can be concluded that storytelling is not only used in the entertainment industry, but it is also a powerful tool to create support. There is a reason why politicians such as Obama and Martin Luther King used storytelling to make their point. Storytelling transforms abstract cases such as a vision in a more concrete and tangible thing. Storytelling enables the narrator to create purpose, meaningfulness, and connection.

In the next article, I will elaborate on how to use storytelling for implementing change including the key components of a good change story.


[1] Ewenstein, B., Smith, W., & Sologar, A. (2015). Changing change management. McKinsey Quarterly.
[2] Scheringa, A. (2013). Storypower; Verhalen die je organisatie veranderen. Amsterdam: Adformatie Groep.

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