Five lessons I’ve learned about using a storytelling approach within change communications

Having a storytelling mindset in business can pay off.

Research shows that organizations that consistently integrate storytelling into internal change communications see benefits – from building buy-in for change initiatives to strengthening team trust to connecting employees.

Yet, some leaders remain reluctant to consider a deliberate storytelling approach; possibly unsure exactly how to build it into a change communications plan. Others haven’t tried it and need coaching and practice.

That gap – between the benefits revealed by the research and the lack of interest by some companies – formed the research question of my Capstone at Northwestern University last year. I am grateful to the incredible business leaders who agreed to be interviewed for this project. And, after listening to their perspectives, I believe organizations should at least pilot a storytelling approach to bolster change communications.

If I was implementing strategic storytelling at a company, here are a few tactics that I would consider:

  1. Avoid using the word “storytelling.” To some leaders, the term is played out. Others immediately assume they must give a TED Talk every time they get in front of an audience. Others consider it too theoretical in a business context. Can another term or description be used to fit the change communication strategy? Maybe frame it as speaking or writing from the heart, inspiring others to action or connecting authentically. After all, good storytelling can help accomplish all of those outcomes. What term most resonates in your company’s culture?
  2. Not all communications consultants are created equal. Some organizations take a dim view of storytelling because of a past negative experience with communications consultants. That makes due diligence all the more important. Ask references about outcomes. How has the consultant’s previous work sparked sustainable organizational change? How did it align with business results? How does the consultant define storytelling and apply it in a verbal, written and/or image form? (Defining story and storytelling is not as easy as it seems, but the nuance is important).
  3. Storytelling takes training and practice. Then it takes more training and practice. Delivering a story that connects with the right audience in the right moment can take serious practice — and the ability to persevere through trial and error. The storyteller must be OK with feeling vulnerable during practice and during public delivery. The storyteller should determine the desired outcome of using story. The communication consultant should work with the client to develop personalized training.
  4. Make the business case with a storytelling training approach. A storytelling training program should focus on helping participants solve actual business problems. Centering a workshop around a pain point that participants are actually grappling with should help buy-in.
  5. Strategic storytelling is only part of the story. As one change communications expert told me: What does it matter if someone can tell a great story that inspires change if he or she isn’t modeling the behavior? Good point. A storytelling approach works best as part of a larger change communications strategy.

Northwestern University Capstone: Leadership storytelling: Barriers and enablers for senior leaders when implementing change communications initiatives


This qualitative study examined the attitudes of senior leaders around the concept of storytelling as a strategic communications tool to assist in driving successful organizational change. The leaders interviewed were more likely to incorporate a strategic storytelling approach if one or more of the following conditions are present: The belief that storytelling can be an effective tactic to drive organizational change, the experience of training in sound storytelling techniques and the ability to incorporate storytelling as part of a wider change-communication strategy. These findings provide greater understanding of the potential role of storytelling within strategic change communications and provide clues for change communications professionals who are seeking to build a strategic storytelling approach.

Introduction of the Question and Methodology

During the past three decades, research has shown that storytelling can help drive organizational change, as one part of strategic change communications. Specifically, storytelling can:

  • Build trust between managers and employees. Auvinen & Blomqvist (2013) interviewed 13 managers in Finland who headed organizational effectiveness efforts and asked them to retell stories used in change situations. They concluded that storytelling makes a positive impact, especially in terms of a leader’s ability to increase trust and help employees make sense of a situation. Additionally, Auvinen & Blomqvist (2013) determined that storytelling could help a manger care about others and grow their professional skills.
  • Tie together past, current and future organizational change: Dalpiaz & Di Stefano (2018) discovered benefits of organizational storytelling by conducting historical analysis of the Italian design firm Alessi. They specifically examined the narrative leadership of founder Alberto Alessi between 1979 to 2010 and the tactics he used to affect change among employees and customers. The authors determined that Alessi’s narratives sustained the company’s story, provided artifacts and created shared memory. This was done through the creation of a narrative that included storytelling in the form of books and other artifacts.
  • Blend a culture during a major period of organizational change, like a merger or acquisition: Vaara and Tienari (2011) demonstrated how managers used storytelling to build an internal, blended culture during the merger of Nordea, a financial services group. Top managers crafted stories of Nordic culture to bring together Swedish, Finnish, Danish, and Norwegian employees. A new cultural identity was developed internally in the company that smoothed over traditional biases held by each country’s culture against co-workers from other cultures.
  • Help organizational stakeholders make better sense of change situations (Weick, 1995). Weick (1995) maintained that “when people punctuate their own living into stories, they impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup, narrativity is a mode of description that transforms events into historical facts by demonstrating their ability to function as elements of completed stories” (p. 128). Boyce (1995) demonstrated this impact during a study of two storytelling events at various non-profit organizations. She led two groups through various storytelling exercises and led follow-up interviews to determine how participants used stories to define the experience in the organization. The results showed that storytelling helped center employees and helped them determine shared meaning (Boyce, 1995).
  • Physiologically tie speaker and listener: Stephens, Silbert, Hasson & Gross (2010) recorded one native English speaker telling an unrehearsed story and had 12 native English speakers listen to the story. The brain activity of all participants was measured with an MRI machine during the story exchange. The findings showed that successful communication results in neural coupling between speaker and listener. This research makes a physiological case for stories connecting participants, an especially important factor in helping employees make sense of change, inspiring and motivating stakeholders and helping to instill a sense of trust between leader and follower.

Yet, for all indications that there are benefits to senior leaders using storytelling, there is evidence that many avoid such an approach. Consider the results of a 2006 International Association of Business Communicators survey on the topic, the most recent such data from one of the world’s most prominent business communications group. Nearly 70 percent of respondents considered storytelling an important addition to change communications (Ioffreda & Gargiulo, 2008). Yet, only 33 percent said their senior leaders effectively used the technique (Ioffreda & Gargiulo, 2008). Researchers continue to study why some senior leaders avoid storytelling as part of a deliberate change communications strategy. This dichotomy forms the basis of this study. The definition of change communications from Kalla (2005) was used in this study and included all formal and informal communication within an organization that advanced the sharing of knowledge to help employees make the organization more successful.

What is Storytelling?

In Poetics, written in 335 B.C., Aristotle (as cited in Cooper, 1913) defined story as having such attributes as an orderly plot, dialogue and told in a truthful way. Aristotle also maintained that story must have a beginning, middle and end (as cited in Cooper, 1913). More than 2,300 years later, that definition is a baseline for many consultants. It is a somewhat incomplete perspective, however, at least from an organizational management standpoint. Since the 1980s, communications and leadership researchers have taken a more nuanced, layered and situational view of story (Corvellec, 2004). They began to consider, for example, how the delivery, acceptance and impact of story – given in the moment, for example – might impact a company’s overarching narrative. Additionally, stories told by a single leader might take on multiple meanings, for multiple employees, at the same time (Gabriel, 1995). Researchers have also considered how leaders who told stories needed to consider their narrative intelligence (Gabriel, 1995) that would help deliver the right story to the right people at the right time. Foundational storytelling researchers consider the interplay of story, actors and situations in the following ways:

• Storytelling as non-linear: Boje (2011) considers stories as snippets of information that impact future organizational outcomes. The leader’s story is part of an organization’s larger and always active narrative; a process constantly shifting in meaning (Boje, 2011). Boje (2011) invited the term “antenarrative” (p. 1) to describe a story as “a bet on the future and its before narrative cohesion fossilizes the past.” Boje (2011) maintains that the delivery, meaning and impact of stories is also impacted by time and space. For example, he might view a story that is delivered by a leader as having the biggest impact at a later time, dependent on how the listeners received the story, how they repeat the story, who receives their story and within what context.

• Specific kinds storytelling drives business results: Denning is one of the originators of describing how leaders can use stories to affect change in order to meet business objectives. Based on his experience at the World Bank, Denning (2001) invented the term “springboard story” (p. 207) as a way to describe the kind of organizational narrative given by a leader that can spark stakeholders to action. This aligns with Kotter’s (1996) change management framework that calls for the establishment of a sense of urgency to successfully drive change.

Research Question

The primary research question of this study was: What are the barriers and enablers around storytelling for senior leaders who are implementing change communications initiatives in organizations?

Study Method

This study consisted of ten interviews and was limited to English-speaking, director-level and above business leaders who had worked on internal change communications strategy. Nine of the 10 interviews were conducted virtually and lasted 30-60 minutes. One interview was conducted in person. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. The interview questions aimed to get respondents to 1) Define change communication strategy; 2) Describe the tactics involved in a change communication initiative; 3) Describe how storytelling factored – or could have factored – into the change communications example and 4) Provide perspective on why strategic storytelling might be used – or not used – generally in change communications. (See appendix for interview questions.) Participant questions initially focused on role function and duties. Questions then focused on at least one example of a change communications initiative that detailed the scope of work, communications planning and implementation and beliefs surrounding successful and non-successful tactics. Questions then moved into views around storytelling. The purpose of this portion of the interview was to determine if the respondent generally supported a storytelling approach or generally resisted a storytelling approach. Once that view was established, respondents were asked to provide deeper perspective on their reason for the support or resistance to storytelling within a change communications and business context. For this research, a purposely broad definition of story was used that included the foundational research: A traditional beginning/middle/end approach, as well as a snippet of information that makes meaning the future. Each respondent was asked to define the concept of storytelling from their perspective.

Analysis & Results

All study participants were based in the United States. Study responses were 60 percent women and 40 percent men, and all had at least 15 years of professional experience. Sixty percent of respondents could be described as purposefully incorporating a strategic storytelling approach into change communications initiatives. This study took a qualitative approach and used the process of inductive coding identified by researchers, such as Thomas (2006). Specific attributes of this kind of approach that Thomas (2006) identifies include cleaning data, reading transcripts multiple times to refine understanding, adding category labels, adding category descriptions, adding associated text, adding common links and incorporating themes into a model. For this study, an inductive approach allowed the researcher to align and synthesize more than 300, double-spaced pages of interviewee transcripts that represented varied change communications experiences across a variety of industries and a differing perspective on the impact of strategic storytelling. Each interview transcript was given a first and second read, with key thematic concepts listed and combined with each review. Key transcript examples were then anonymized and added to a spreadsheet that categorized pieces of data into an example of a change communication initiative, participant definition of storytelling, storytelling themes, storytelling sub-themes and additional quotes providing context and future storytelling research opportunities. In line with Thomas (2006), categories were established based on the themes and insights that emerged from the transcripts. A theme was established only if there were multiple examples of that theme from three or more participants. Sub-themes were identified through strong links to main themes. For example, one sub-theme of storytelling reputation was a misunderstanding of the definition of storytelling.

Emerging Themes from the Results

I discovered three primary themes that point to the barriers and enablers for strategic leadership storytelling within a change management initiative: A belief that storytelling is or is not a reputable business approach, a belief that training is necessary and is or is not easy and a view that storytelling can be integrated into wider change communications.

Barriers and Enablers: Storytelling reputation: Had a senior leader actually used a storytelling approach?

As previously stated, there are varying opinions between researchers and senior leaders about storytelling as an effective change communications tool within a business context. This reputational disconnect was apparent in this study. Some respondents perceived the concept of story as more appropriate for external marketing or advertising efforts. Others indicated they were intimidated by a growing number of sophisticated storytelling events like TED Talks that would require them to be expert presenters, almost in the vein of a celebrity circuit speaker. Some respondents reported having frustrating experiences with storytelling consultants that didn’t help organizations reach strategic communication goals. Even the word storytelling evoked mixed reaction. One respondent said: “Children listen to stories, right? A lot of senior executives might think ‘my employees are not children. These are grown adults who should understand the strategy and deliver against it’” (P2). The P2 code, and ensuing similar codes throughout this paper, refer to responses from specific, anonymized participants. Figure 1 is comprised of three separate interviewee responses that are linked to storytelling resistance and are therefore barriers to storytelling. Figure 2 is comprised of two different interviewee responses that are linked to storytelling acceptance. Figure 1 and Figure 2 demonstrate reputational barriers or enablers to a storytelling approach. One key difference, within the theme of reputation, seems to be hands-on experience with storytelling. Respondents who took a negative reputational view of storytelling used language that suggested what they imagined would happen when implementing strategic storytelling in a business context. Most had actually not attempted to use storytelling in a strategic way. Respondents who took a positive reputational view of storytelling used language that suggested they had actually attempted a storytelling approach. In other words, respondents with a negative view had not used storytelling.

Figure 1: Interview feedback: Storytelling reputational variables affecting resistance

Figure 2: Interview feedback: Storytelling reputational variables affecting acceptance

Study participants who embraced storytelling also demonstrated the experience of how the approach helped employees understand a change situation. One study respondent said that “I think (storytelling) is an effective way to get to the point and to get people to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, the decisions you’re trying to get to, the update you’re trying to provide.” That particular respondent demonstrated how they frame a storytelling approach for nearly every business problem. Their approach included mapping out a change story in much the same way that a filmmaker might storyboard a movie. They reported enlisting other C-Level leaders to take the same approach, a request made increasingly easier because those leaders began to see the benefit of the process.

Barriers and Enablers: Enthusiasm for training and vulnerability

While respondents in this study had mixed opinions on the value and impact of strategic storytelling, nearly all addressed that training and practice were important storytelling barriers and enablers. One interview participant summed up the situation as: “I think a lot of people just haven’t had the practice or the training or the appreciation of its impact. I definitely wasn’t naturally born with it…I come from the classic story of MBA school of logic…(that’s) not necessarily bad…but I have all that classic training of creating a good PowerPoint, create a good logical flow, create a good set of facts and data points.” (P1). Beyond formal schooling, other respondents reported that senior leaders realized they had to dedicate time to develop and practice storytelling. This process was not only presumed to be time-consuming, but the act of rehearsal could make the leader feel vulnerable – a word used by multiple respondents. Multiple respondents maintained that some senior leaders believed that storytelling, as part of practicing for an audience, made them feel vulnerable if they revealed a personal anecdote. Others worried about appearing vulnerable in front of a storytelling coach or consultant. Some then imagined they would be vulnerable when delivering a story in front of a live audience. Figure 3 is comprised of four separate interviewee responses that are linked to training resistance and are therefore barriers to storytelling. Figure 4 is comprised of two separate interviewee responses that are linked to acceptance and are therefore enablers to storytelling. Figure 3 and Figure 4 demonstrate training barriers or enablers to a storytelling approach.

Figure 3: Interview feedback: Storytelling training and vulnerability affecting resistance

Figure 4: Interview feedback: Storytelling training variables affecting acceptance

To clarify why training and practice are important, this study makes a distinction between storytelling that is strategic versus off-the-cuff: Storytelling that is strategic is part of a change communications strategy. The story is somewhat planned out, meets the need of change objectives and is continually refined by the speaker and the reaction by the audience is gauged, either by observation or a quantitative process like a survey on understanding the message the story was meant to convey. To get to that point, many storytellers use professional coaches. Other leaders said that practice is a balance: “I think practice and training is important, but I also want to make sure that we don’t over-train and over-do practice” (P7). Too much practice, can make the storyteller and story seem inauthentic, the respondent added.

Barriers and Enablers: Use of storytelling as part of a larger change communications strategy

Many respondents in this study were quick to point out that storytelling should only be considered as one part of developing and implementing strategic change communications. The interview protocol purposely began with general questions that asked participants to detail a change communications initiative, specifically focusing on the situation, the messaging content, the tools and tactics used to communicate the messaging and outcomes. This was done to determine if participants would address the subject of storytelling without prompting in order to provide greater sense of how much it played into their overall change communications planning. In most cases, the topic of storytelling was not addressed without a prompt. It can be reasonably inferred, therefore, that other change communication approaches were more top-of-mind for interviewees, and likely more regularly used. These included town hall events featuring senior leaders, work with key stakeholders around message alignment, email and company Intranet sites, the use of video that aligned with internal brand, as well as the establishment of private social communities. Figure 5 is comprised of three separate interviewee responses showing perspective on the importance of other organizational change tactics. For most respondents, these tactics appeared to be more top-of-mind than storytelling.

Figure 5: Interview feedback: Storytelling should be part of a larger communications strategy that includes modeling behavior, stakeholder feedback loops and rewards/recognition.

Interpretation and Recommendations

This study was conducted to better understand the barriers and enablers for senior leaders to use strategic storytelling as part of change communications to drive organizational change. First, the results showed that storytelling’s reputation within a business context – from the perspective of the individual leader – can be a major determinant if the approach is used. Specifically, senior leaders who could see the value of new approaches beyond traditional business school training that solely focused on communication that relied on pure data and jargon-laden communications appeared to be more open to considering a storytelling approach. For that to happen, it is important that the senior leader have a research-based understanding of the myths and realities of storytelling, especially related to business objectives. This approach should be highly relatable to challenges in business communication. One respondent in this study who trains senior leaders on storytelling techniques uses an acronym to get clients to this view: C.R.A.P. stands for “Corporate Rhetoric and Pomposity” (P10). Injecting such instances of humor can help senior leaders see how storytelling can make business communication more clear and authentic. Additionally, this respondent ensures that clients work on storytelling training by using a real business problem so that the concept and value becomes more readily apparent. As this participant told me, “as they’re applying what we’re teaching them, they’re actually getting work done. We make a point not to take people out of work, we make story part of their work” (P10). Secondly, training and practice can serve as barriers and enablers to using strategic storytelling as a change communications planning. Third, senior leaders were more apt to see the value of storytelling if they could see it as part of a larger strategy that included making sure that leaders were aligned and included other structural elements seen in widely accepted organizational change strategies. Based on these conclusions, I developed the following model (Figure 6) to represent the understanding of barriers and enables to use of strategic storytelling.

Figure 6: Theoretical Framework: Leadership Storytelling

I have identified the barriers and enablers of storytelling within the context of change communications and it is necessary to show how the topic relates to current trends in organizational management against a quickly changing business world. One oft-cited statistic in human capital literature is that 70% of change efforts fail (Hughes, 2011). While recent research shows that figure may be inaccurate (Hughes, 2011), there little doubt that most organizational change is a difficult yet necessary component of a company’s survival (Burns, 2011). It is also important to consider how organizations will grapple with change management practices as the business world continues to become more global, more connected and faster moving. What might that mean for leadership storytelling? Renjen (2018) contends that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has started and is marked by artificial intelligence, digital disruption, data, increased M&A activity and other factors. A Deloitte survey of 1,600 C-Suite leaders cited by Renjen (2018) reported that just 14 percent believed their companies could manage Industry 4.0, with 25 percent reporting their workforce was prepared. Allan, Fairtlough & Heinzen (2002) maintain that organizations are in limbo as they move away from being hierarchical entities and are torn by a desire for stability and need to navigate a new, ambiguous business world. The authors recognized this change gap within organizations where stakeholders realized they needed to change but struggled to progress without the traditional hierarchal systems and reporting structures of the past. The authors maintain that one answer to effective change is increased soft skills that help people navigate anxiety during times of internal change and storytelling can provide an answer. Effectively communicating that change is often underestimated or placed in a supporting planning role but McClellan (2011) agrees that it is a reason why efforts are successful.  How might the findings in this study help guide future efforts by companies that want to implement strategic storytelling, especially to drive organizational change in a rapidly changing business world? The results suggest a few tactics. First, senior leaders should be educated as to how companies have used storytelling to positively impact a variety of business objectives – from driving brand performance to strengthen culture, especially during periods that can bring high internal conflict such as a merger and acquisition. Second, companies should work to develop a checklist of skills that storytelling consultants should possess to help guarantee positive results. The items on this list would include foundational understanding of storytelling theory, outlined in this study, as well as references to demonstrate positive results with other clients. The list should include research on how storytelling can physiologically tie speaker and listener using the previously mentioned research from Stephens, Silbert, Hasson & Gross (2010). Additionally, storytelling training and practice are important and senior leaders should have a supportive consultant-coach. The storytelling consultant must provide the senior leader with a safe and private space to practice storytelling and should work with the client to identify ways to gradually work storytelling into business communications. This does not have to be a verbal presentation to thousands of employees. It can be a paragraph in a company newsletter. It can be a quick scene in a video. It can be incorporated into a presentation to a few senior leaders. The coach and the senior leader might consider identifying peers who could provide honest feedback on the storytelling approach. This would allow the senior leader to feel increasingly comfortable using storytelling. Additionally, storytelling training should focus on helping the senior leader(s) solve actual business problems. Finally, companies should understand the latest trends in change communications and how companies are integrating storytelling into their strategy. This may help them better determine the best ways to integrate strategic storytelling in their own organizations.


While the participants involved in this study provided high-quality insight into strategic storytelling, the sample size of responses was small, with ten interviews conducted. Additionally, while participants were employed in various senior leadership roles, not all focused solely on change communications strategy, which possibly meant a gap in knowledge surrounding foundational change management frameworks and theories. There is a difference in leading an organization from the perspective of a finance background, for example, and leading an organization from the perspective of a human capital background. Additionally, the concept and practice of change communications was much better known to some respondents than others. Finally, there was just one interview per person. Having time to conduct additional in-person and observational research around a change initiative and storytelling over a period of months or years would have made this study more robust.

Future Research

Additional research into the barriers and enablers of strategic storytelling are certainly needed. The analysis of the transcripts of this study point to a few areas of import: The need to study the views of strategic storytelling by demographic age group, specifically around views of this approach by newer senior leaders in the Millennial generation compared to more seasoned senior leaders of Generation X and the Baby Boom Generation. Additionally, there was a call to examine the storytelling orientation of leaders in different industries, especially those in the non-profit sector where a storytelling approach might be used by a greater number of leaders. There is also a need to research storytelling dynamics at workplaces beyond Europe. Mládková (2014) has studied the impact of leadership storytelling on employee learning in change situations in the Czech Republic and has surmised that results were partially impacted by that country’s specific culture. Country of origin identity was certainly a factor in the implementation of Nordic identity and storytelling identified by Vaara & Tienari (2011). Additionally, while Auvinen & Blomqvist (2013), connected storytelling capability to increased leadership trust, they acknowledge deeper studies are needed, especially that measure exactly how audience members perceive the story and decide how it is worthy of trust. The authors also rightly identify that storytelling is not just an oral tradition, that leadership storytelling can take the form other company communications like press releases, emails, branded books and other artifacts. While that was incorporated into the study of Alessi by Dalpiaz & Di Stefano (2018), more is needed. McCarthy (2008) called for more research into how storytelling techniques might deepen connections between organizational stakeholders, clarify values and connect with emotional intelligence.


Allan, J., Fairtlough, G., & Heinzen, B. (2002). The power of the tale: Using narratives for organisational success. Chichester: Wiley.

Auvinen, T., Aaltio, I., & Blomqvist, K. (2013). Constructing leadership by storytelling – the meaning of trust and narratives. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 34(6), 496-514.

Boje, D. (2011). Storytelling and the future of organizations: An antenarrative handbook (Management, organizations and society (London, England); v. 11). New York: Routledge.

Boyce, M. (1995). Collective Centring and Collective Sense-making in the Stories and Storytelling of One Organization. Organization Studies, 16(1), 107-137.

Burnes, B. (2011). Introduction: Why Does Change Fail, and What Can We Do About It? Journal of Change Management., 11(4), 445-450.

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Corvellec, H. (2004). The Power of Tale — Using Narrative for Organisational Success. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 20(1), 211-217.

Dalpiaz, E., & Di Stefano, G. (2018). A universe of stories: Mobilizing narrative practices during transformative change. Strategic Management Journal, 39(3), 664-696.

Denning, S. (2001). The springboard: How storytelling ignites action in knowledge-era organizations. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Gabriel, Y. (1995). The Unmanaged Organization: Stories, Fantasies and Subjectivity. Organization Studies, 16(3), 477-501.

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McClellan, J. (2011). Reconsidering Communication and the Discursive Politics of Organizational Change. Journal of Change Management, 11(4), 465-480.

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Appendix A: Subject recruitment materials: Outreach

Hello [NAME]

I am a graduate student in the Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University who was given your name by [MUTUAL CONTACT].

I am working on my Capstone project and am studying how senior leaders view strategic storytelling related to change communications. I’m speaking with a group of change communications professionals to get their perspective.

I would love to include you in this research study. Would you have time for an in-person or videoconference interview? It should take about 60 minutes and I am more than happy to schedule it on a day and time that is convenient for you.

Please let me know if you have additional questions.



Appendix B: Final data collection instrument/protocol

Leadership storytelling: Barriers and enablers for senior leaders when implementing change communications initiatives

Chad Graham

Interview: In-person

Interview introduction

Hello and thank you for your time.

As we’ve discussed in our initial emails and conversations, I am a graduate student in the Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. For my Capstone project, I’m studying how senior leaders view strategic storytelling related to change communications. I’m speaking with a group of change communications professionals to get their perspective. We’ll talk today for about 60 minutes. I’ll then transcribe our interview and analyze the results for general themes. I’ll then present findings in a paper and presentation at Northwestern.

Our discussion today will focus on a few areas, including recent examples of a change initiative in your organization, how you communicated that change within your organization and if storytelling was a part of it. I have a series of beginning questions and then we’ll drill down a bit deeper into a couple of topics. Do you have any questions before we begin?

[Interviewer note: Initial definitions/questions will help the interviewer and interviewee to establish a common understanding of three key concepts: Storytelling, change communications and examples of organizational change situations]

I want to make sure that we’re working from the same definitions of a few key concepts:

• Storytelling: A snippet of information that is co-created by giver and receiver, this doesn’t necessarily have a traditional beginning/middle/end like a narrative, for the purpose of this study we’ll cover both kinds of examples

• Change management/initiative: The act of offering a process to enact successful tactics to successfully drive different outcomes in a company.

• Change communications: The manner in which communication about a change initiative results are delivered to and received by an organization’s stakeholders; can take many forms including email, townhalls, presentations, stories, videos, FAQ’s, business results

Beginning questions

  • Please describe your role at this organization.
    • Probe, if needed: What are your functional duties?
    • Probe, if needed: What key divisions/units do you oversee?
  • How is your internal communications team structured?
    • Probe, if needed: What are its primary functions?
    • Probe, if needed: How does the internal communications generally structure change communications strategy?
  • Can you tell me about a recent change initiative in your organization?
    • Probe, if needed: When did the initiative happen?
    • Probe, if needed: Who were the message’s targeted stakeholders?
  • How did the organization communicate the change to employees?
    • Probe, if needed: How did the communication planning happen?
  • In your opinion, how successful was the change communications effort?
    • Probe, if needed: Why do you feel that way?
    • Probe, if needed: Was there a way to measure the effect of those change communications.
  • How do you think about storytelling?
    • Probe, if needed: From your perspective, what is a story?
    • Probe, if needed: What are the different parts of a story?
  • Have you purposely used storytelling to advance a recent change initiative?

If the answer is yes to utilizing strategic storytelling:

  • How did you use storytelling as part of this particular change initiative?
    • Probe, if needed: Please walk me through the process.
    • Probe, if needed: Where did you tell the story?
    • Probe, if needed: Who heard the story?
    • Probe, if needed: Why did you select that particular story?
    • Probe, if needed: Why did you/your team decide to use storytelling?
    • Probe, if needed: What was the general reaction to the story? How do you know?
    • Probe, if needed: What worked in using a storytelling approach to this initiative?
    • Probe, if needed: What didn’t work in using a storytelling approach to this initiative?
  • In general, why is using storytelling as part of change communications a good idea?
    • Probe, if needed: How did the story help make a positive impact on the specific change goal?
  • Have you received storytelling training?
    • Probe, if needed: If applicable, describe a storytelling training that has been held?
    • Probe, if needed: Was the storytelling training
  • Why do you think some leaders avoid using storytelling?
    • Probe, if needed: From your perspective, how do the following factors play into that avoidance?
    • Probe, if needed: Traditional communication approach impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of training impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of time impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of resources impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of understanding of storytelling benefits (culture) impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Industry competitive pressures impact?
  • If you were going to convince senior leaders to implement strategic storytelling at an organization, how would you do it?
  • What else would you like to add about your perception of storytelling and change communications?

If the answer is no to utilizing strategic storytelling:

  • How did you communicate about the change initiative?
    • Probe, if needed: Can you tell me why storytelling wasn’t used as part of the change communications?
    • Probe, if needed: How did you work to ensure the organizational change communications strategy was successful?
    • Probe, if needed: How did you know?
  • What are the most common methods that you communicate change?
    • Probe, if needed: In general, what strategies seem to work the best?
  • From your perspective, what are the downsides to storytelling?
  • Why do you think some leaders avoid using storytelling?
    • Probe, if needed: From your perspective, how do the following factors play into that avoidance?
    • Probe, if needed: Traditional communication approach impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of training impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of time impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of resources impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Lack of understanding of storytelling benefits (culture) impact?
    • Probe, if needed: Industry competitive pressures impact?
  • Why do you think some senior leaders might support using a storytelling approach?
  • Would you be open to using storytelling in the future? Why or why not?
  • What else would you like to add about your perception of storytelling and organizational change?

Thank you for your time. Your responses today have given me a deeper understanding of how you think about storytelling within the context of organizational communications and change. If it’s alright, I may need to follow up with additional questions based on overall themes that develop with this research project.

What is the link between self-orientation and trustworthiness?

I’ve been lucky this year to learn from people who are skilled at talent coaching, design thinking, change communications, organizational effectiveness and more.

They all share one personality trait: Low self-orientation.

They work to avoid making any part of the process about themselves. In fact, their actions are almost hidden as they guide others to a solution.

This article looks at self-orientation, which is a part of the trust equation in The Trusted Advisor. When “your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they are likely to trust you.”

So simple.

Yet, it can be easy to fall into high self-orientation mode where “your attention is focused on yourself and others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they then decide you are untrustworthy.”

As (one version) of the old saying goes, “be interested, not interesting.”

Northwestern University research

My Master’s Capstone project has been approved. It’s about business leaders and storytelling.

Specifically, I’m examining how senior leaders (director level and above) view strategic storytelling when communicating about change.

I am looking to interview change management and/or change communications leaders to get their perspective on using storytelling to driving business results. Is that you? Is that someone you know? Email me at 

Here’s why change management and change communications pros should care about this topic: A growing body of research reveals that storytelling can guide modern change efforts in an increasingly complex and ambiguous business world. Storytelling, as part of a leadership change communications strategy, can spark employee action, strengthen team trust, deepen knowledge sharing and help employees better visualize the future (Denning, 2006). Stories provide a way for leaders to help employees make sense of change by bridging the future state laid out in a communications change plan with current-state reality, (Reissner, 2011). Senior leaders who use storytelling techniques, methodically and intentionally, can shape the future of an organization, especially in rallying others around a shared purpose (Boal & Schultz, 2007).

Yet, for all indications that strategic leadership storytelling should be universally embraced, questions remain if that is happening during change efforts. Researchers continue to study why some senior leaders avoid storytelling as part of a deliberate change communications strategy.

This gap forms the basis of my project.

colorful books

Photo by Kaboompics .com on

Boal, K., & Schultz, P. (2007). Storytelling, time, and evolution: The role of strategic leadership in complex adaptive systems. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 411-428. 
Denning, S. (2006). Effective storytelling: Strategic business narrative techniques. Strategy and Leadership, 34(1), 42-48.
Reissner, S. (2011). Patterns of stories of organisational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(5), 593-609.

Big things I’ve learned about change in the past year (a checklist for media orgs)

I am excited to present this week at the Daily Iowan’s 150th anniversary celebration. As a University of Iowa undergrad, the DI was my first training ground in how to be a reporter and a newsroom manager. It remains an incredible experience for students.

I’ll be speaking about change management, focusing on media organizations. It’s been a year since I left my job as a digital director at a TV station to return to school and head down a new career path in change management. I’ve had plenty of “aha” moments from incredible mentors connected with Northwestern University’s MSLOC program about why organizational change can be so difficult and how to help make it a smoother process.

Plenty of news organizations continue to scramble just to get their product out, find new revenue streams and navigate ever-changing consumer behavior. It’s a tough business and the past decade has been a roller-coaster ride. I also remain deeply concerned that news companies still aren’t paying enough attention to building and growing internal change capability. There’s plenty of “we need to change” talk, but the “how” of the change — the boots-on-the-ground, step-by-step implementation that gets broad buy-in — loses steam. Many are failing to continually train new leaders or set up systems to create, share and scale knowledge in engaging ways. Some don’t have the know-how to create successful and sustainable teams, HR is buried in logistics paperwork, the emotional impact of historic industry disruption on employees is ignored and so on.

Meanwhile, business is only getting more complex. Check out this Industry 4.0 site from Deloitte.

If you work for a media organization, here are a few tactics to consider when navigating change:

Try to stay in the problem. Picture it: You’re in a meeting and a problem is brought to everyone’s attention. It’s the first time most participants in the room have heard of this problem. What does everyone do? They start suggesting solutions. Not so fast. While that behavior is rewarded around deadline-driven news coverage, it may not work best with internal, organizational strategy. Ask the room: Have we really identified that this is the problem? How do we know? Have we tested these assumptions?

Ask questions. Then ask more questions and then ask more questions. How many times do we pretend to listen to others, but are actually simultaneously formulating a response in our minds? This Harvard Business Review article has a different tactic. There is power in asking follow-up questions, which can make a participant feel respected and involved in a change process. Questions can be as much about building rapport and gaining support for an initiative as they are about getting answers. Here’s a challenge: Could you go an entire work day mostly asking questions? You do work in the communications business, after all. Take a page from journalism and avoid “yes” or “no” questions, capitalize on silence and allow the other person to expand on their comments and take care not to interrupt.

Know yourself at work. Do you know your work style? How do you react during times of stress? Can you read a room and adjust your style accordingly? Taking assessments can provide a better sense of how to be more effective in the workplace. Two of my favorites are the CliftonStrengths assessment and the Hogan assessments. Here’s more information on assessments.

Know your team at work. Did you know that teams with more than 8-10 people may not function well? Or, how about that most teams go through four distinct phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing? Have you ever considered writing a team charter so that every member is clear on how the team operates, member roles and goals? Knowing how a team works is just as important as ensuring that the team reaches its goals.

Build narrative intelligence. Organizational storytelling is the focus of my Master’s thesis and I am convinced that company leaders (especially) should continue to build skills in this area. Being able to tell the right story at the right time to the right audience to spark action will become even more critical to drive change. Storytelling can be a powerful way to steer through ambiguity.

And, please incorporate story arc, current state and future state into your presentations. This TED Talk from Nancy Duarte should be required watching for anyone creating a PowerPoint:

Learn design thinking. “This approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges,” according to the experts at IDEO. This method can be rolled out across the enterprise as a key way to build ideas and test solutions. It works for planning news content, discovering revenue solutions, transforming talent management and more.

To be sure, this is just a starter list. I’d love to hear from my fellow change management practitioners and media leaders on their solutions.

Simple tactics that leaders can use to build a culture of innovation


The world of work has changed and leaders need to become champions of innovation and create a work environment that fosters creativity, ideation and experimentation. How can that happen? It’s not easy.

Stephanie Waite, Amy Buck and Andee Harris joined me to discuss their tips and tactics. I especially loved their takes on how leaders can use the power of questions and reading the room/body language to adjust their messages.