How storytelling with purpose is like great jazz

Storytelling like Jazz

Business is jazznot classical music. It involves improvisation, responsiveness, solo and collective genius and a looseness between the players that enables brilliant performance from each individual in harmony with the whole.  

When they start the performance, the group knows where they plan to end up – but trust in each other to find their way there together, in a musical dialogue with each other that is unique to that session. 

However, a live performance of ‘Take Five’ will always sound familiar, and very different from one of ‘Round Midnight’. That’s because they each have at their heart a distinctive melody, a composition that forms the framework for the collective execution. 

In business, that tune is the Strategic Narrative. It is the core story that defines the who, why, how and what of the organisation, its products and services or any big initiative, such as change. Anything that needs everyone to point in the same direction or demonstrate what makes that organisation different.  

It is the point of reference that enables teams to riff on the themes – but all to riff on the same themes, not to play a completely different tune. 

Let it riff 

This is how I believe you should develop your storytelling strategy. 

You want your people to feel free to explore new ideas or share wonderful stories like brilliant soloists; you need to ensure there is dialogue that responds to an ever-changing marketplace in the same way that a group of jazz musicians feed off each other; you need the equivalent of the rhythm section to make sure the basics are covered in the stories that are told. However, you want to make sure they are all playing a single tune – aligned and moving together, creating something that is distinctive and stands out in a noisy world. Being professional as well as simply human.  

Here’s what I find interesting: in my experience, it is often true that no-one has really composed anything. The leaders and their teams are each playing their own tunes, and not always in harmony.  

The result can sometimes be noise, not music. Everyone wants to develop more storytelling – but no one wants to receive more irrelevant noise, especially in a professional environmentJust check your latest LinkedIn feed to see what I mean.   

This is where internal social media can go wrong – if they simply turn up the volume, instead of being a platform for valuable storytelling that is relevant, connected and well-focused.  

It’s why this approach to structured storytelling should be a key part of the implementation of much more dynamic internal communications channels. 

Write the tune, coach the players 

In this work, less is more. Seek to cut through the complexity to find the beautiful simplicity that sits at the heart of the big story that unites the organisation and captures what makes it special. Identify the big ideas, that I call the narrative themes, which the organisation wants to stand for among the people whom it needs to engage; the headline that acts as a rallying call that grabs the attention of those within and without the firm; a clear articulation of the who, why and how of the business that captures what is special, different and great in a way that resonates with the people it needs to reach. 

These themes become the sheet music that drive storytelling in a way that also delivers on strategy. Because the stories are not only interesting, human and engaging, they are relevant and connected with each other. They build a bigger narrative and will often be useful in the pursuit of the organisation’s goals. Coaching your people in the art of purposeful storytelling makes this even more effective and ensures the content remains engaging.  

Much storytelling within organisations already does this. Having a clear narrative-driven strategy means much more of it will do – and support the business case for investment in those new channels and platforms. 

Write the tune, coach the players

When I first worked in this field the mantra was to ‘control the message’. Business was intended to be classical music, with everyone synchronised, restricted to the company story and staying well and truly on point. Different audiences had different messages.  

That world is gone. Customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders all know what each other are being told. The end of control means an increased need for clarity, focus and some consistency so that everyone knows they have a key part to play in performance, and tell their story with confidence.  

Join Stuart Maister for a one-day masterclass Better bigger storytelling, the key to aligned engagement in London on July 11th 10am – 4pm.