Strategy: Beyond the PowerPoint Deck

The evolution of your business strategy requires that you think beyond PowerPoint decks, forecasting and competitive analysis. What’s missing? Storytelling. This is no tall tale. Discover how stories can enhance your strategic thinking and help you get the green light so your killer strategy sees the light of day.

There’s nothing like a great story. As humans, we are wired to connect with stories. We process them differently than facts and numbers. Something about the combination of emotions, the hope and inspiration, the nail-biting tension and just enough believability. Fictional or not, they stick with us in our hearts and in our minds. They have the power to defy logic and make us believe: What if?

So, how can storytelling help you capitalize on strategy?

According to research by professors Sarah Kaplan and Wanda Orlikowski at the University of Toronto and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stories help us understand the past and present and connect them with the future. Even in a business, we seek to make sense of things within the context of the company’s past. We gravitate to stories because they are about people. People make decisions, not companies. Sometimes, it’s easier to believe in individuals rather than a faceless enterprise. Stories help us establish continuity, and with the force of the past behind us, we are empowered to repeat successes—or avoid those same old mistakes.

Forecasting, SWOT analysis, Porter’s Five Forces—these business tools are useful and necessary, but they cannot guarantee the future. Stories of continuity create that extra shot of courage to help turn around a stagnant status quo or to keep forging ahead, even when the path is hard and you’re dealing with constant change and uncertainty. With contextual stories, your pitch gains strength compared to a dry PowerPoint deck with never-ending charts.

Always start with the big picture. Think back to the best stories. The magic isn’t in the mundane details. It’s in the grand themes: bravery, freedom, friendship, love, loyalty, creativity, discovery and determination. In business, the bigger picture translates to activities such as crafting your company’s purpose and mission, exploring new markets, creating new product categories and making tough choices about resources and risk.

Maybe your business has stories about its founder(s) or other star employees. You know the ones! The stories have become epic. Think about the paths these people forged. Use these bold ideas to brainstorm alternative strategies beyond the straightforward, logical ones your forecasts indicate. If you can link your strategic narrative to one of these company legends, you have the power to incite a rally cry around your pitch.

If you’re a startup and don’t have much history to go on, use the stories of other entrepreneurs to help you garner the green light. They’re role models for a reason, right? Good ideas don’t always speak for themselves. Aligning your strategy with a similar success story helps your colleagues believe in your idea. Just be sure that believability factor is there. Without it, your narrative isn’t going to resonate, and you’ll be back at the whiteboard.

Sometimes, companies get hung up on tactics. They confuse those pesky details with the moral of the story. Remember Kodak? They got hung up on the details of cameras and film. Kodak’s founder, George Eastman, had provided a fantastic mini-story in the late 1880s with the slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.” It’s unfortunate that stories can also be misinterpreted when it comes to making strategic decisions. Just imagine how different Kodak’s future would have been if they had focused on the aspiration of helping people preserve and share memories through innovative technology. Don’t let tactics be the moral of the story. Get your colleagues back on track with the real message.

Whatever your strategic direction needs to be, build it around the context of your company and its culture. Use all the elements that make a story great: emotion, tension, conflict, inspiration and even those numbers from your forecasting and competitive analysis. With continuity, people feel more confident jumping on board. It becomes part of their workplace heritage rather than a break from tradition. So, shut down that PowerPoint. Step away from the whiteboard. It’s story time.