Communicating strategy with story part 4 – The power of anti-stories

Posted by  Mark Schenk —May 14, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

Today is the final post in a series of four based on a transcript from my recent interview on the Voice America Business Channel show ‘Story Powered’ hosted by Lianne Picot. The topic of the program was communicating strategy with story, and the anti-stories that can affect changes that you’re trying to make in your business.

Talk to the Elephant

In part 3 of this series, we talked about a new strategy, or communicating a new way of doing business, which is one of the most important and most challenging things a business can do.

In this post we look at anti-stories, what they are and why they are so powerful.

The podcast continues…


I’d love you to talk about something that you uniquely talk about, which is anti-stories. Potentially people in moments of discontent are creating anti-stories, or at least there are some, so tell us about anti-stories and how powerful they are.

What are anti-stories and how powerful are they?


In general, for every official story there’s going to be unofficial stories. Some of those unofficial stories can be huge barriers to changing behaviour to what you want people to adopt in order to bring strategy to life.

The first time this really became clear to us was in 2009 when we were working with a government department that had merged; so three departments had become one department.

The merged department was a huge organisation, probably 20,000 people and there was lots of integration required. One of the key focuses of their strategy was integration: why do something three different ways when it can be done one way? That all sounds perfectly logical from the point of view of the leadership team.

I was in the lift, leaving the building, and met a guy that I knew. We were having a chat and I was explaining what we did, how I’d been working with the leadership team to tell their strategic story with key focus areas of integration, etc. He just looked at me with a puzzled look and said, “Mark, we’re not going to integrate anything, we’re just waiting for the next divorce.” I sat down and had a cup of coffee with him and he told me the divorce story.

Essentially in 1992 – so really 20 years before, those same three departments had been merged. It didn’t work and 5 years later the government split the departments again into separate departments. It was called the great divorce.

Picture the leaders standing in front of their people saying, “Folks, let’s talk about integration, we need to integrate the three systems into one and all our processes. People are just going, “Yeah, right; we’re just waiting for the next divorce.”

It’s a huge barrier to integration. One of the first things is you need to do is identify; to surface these anti-stories and you have to treat it like a story. You can’t just assert that the story people are telling is wrong. You can’t just say, “There will be no divorce,” There is lots of psychological research that demonstrates that you can’t just push a different opinion at somebody. It will cause them to reinforce what they already believe. The more you assert that there’ll be no future divorce, the more people believe that there will.

Does that make sense?


It does, it makes a lot of sense. What it sounds like is you’re getting into a situation where someone is telling their story the loudest and that’s not useful either, right? We’ve lost the power of story altogether when we’re just battling it out and reinforcing current stories. That’s great and thank you Mark for sharing about the anti-stories because I think that’s where a lot of organisations get stuck.

I find this subject absolutely fascinating as somebody who used to do change management work and go into organisations where my job was to build a new story. What was always there, and historically there, was something Mark has been talking about. I didn’t know they were called this, or that you could think of them as anti-stories. I just wanted to revisit that because it’s such a substantial part of communicating a new strategy. If you don’t know what the stories are that could be working against you, the potential for success is diminished.

Mark, just share a little more about the anti-stories and how we were just talking about whoever shouts the loudest in terms of the story; that’s not going to work either. People using their power to say that story is not true; it doesn’t work either, so what works to deal with anti-stories?

What works when you’re dealing with anti-stories?


Annette Simmons wrote a book about 10 years ago called ‘Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins’ and that’s the case with anti-story stories. You can’t fight a story with a fact; you can only fight it with a better story. Part of the challenge is to understand first what those anti-stories are, and secondly to come up with a different story. There are various strategies for tackling anti-stories and one of my favourite examples of it, I call it the ‘mea culpa strategy’, where you just say ‘Yep, we didn’t get that right…’

The ‘mea culpa strategy’

If anyone is interested they should watch the first 5 minutes of Steve Job’s speech where he introduces ‘iCloud’ at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference. He uses the structure that I’m about to share with you – a huge anti-story which is around ‘Mobile Me’. He tackles it beautifully by saying, “why would you believe us, we’re the ones that brought you ‘Mobile Me’.” The audience erupted in laughter. He said, “It wasn’t our finest hour but we’ve learned a lot.”

With just those few simple words he takes the heat out of this huge potential anti-story. The ‘mea culpa strategy’ is firstly knowing that the story is a problem; it’s a barrier to your strategy, and then just admitting it.

For example, if you’re talking about business growth, but there’s been three rounds of redundancies, you can tackle that by saying, “I know that many of you are really worried about future redundancies because after the GFC, revenues dramatically shrank and we had the three rounds of redundancies. We did not handle them well and morale took a big hit. Many people left, not just because of redundancies, but because they didn’t like the way we handled it. We’ve learned a lot from that and we’re not going to make that mistake again.” It’s called the ‘mea culpa strategy’ – you just go, “Yes, we did that.”

I was working with a professional services firm, one of the very large professional services firms and the leadership team had decided they were not going to talk about redundancies anymore. You might have heard organisations, and leadership teams say things like that? If the leadership team says, “we don’t want people talking about redundancies”, it’s what people talk about.


Absolutely and everywhere. Wherever they can, whenever they can, right?


Yes, it’s like pouring petrol on a fire by taking that approach.


I completely agree. I totally agree that as a leader it’s important not to close it down and to recognise it which builds trust anyway. In terms of then creating the story that is the best story to overcome; what’s your ‘how?’ You talked earlier about a narrative structure so what’s the ‘how?’

How do you create a better story?


The first thing is that we can’t write a story for an organisation. We don’t go in and say, “Yes, let us write the story.” What we do – it’s a co-creation, and the leadership team have to be completely invested in the story. It’s not like somebody comes in and says, “Oh, we’re going to develop your strategy.” This requires a very strong investment from the leadership team. That’s the first point – you can’t do it for an organisation.

A second ‘how’ is that you use a very simple narrative structure and there’s four parts to it. The first part is ‘In the past’. In the past we were like this; we had strengths, we had weaknesses, we had good points, we had bad points.

You’ll notice that the emphasis here is that you can’t just talk about the good things that have happened; it can’t be the Polyanna story where everything is fine and everything is all good. You have to have an honest appreciation of strengths and weaknesses, so that’s the first panel, ‘in the past’.

The second part of the story we call it ‘the turning point’.  So ‘in the past’ is the first part of the structure and the next part is ‘then something happened’. The turning point is actually one of the key things that explains the ‘why.’

Turning points can be things like, ‘We realised that revenue was not covering our costs, ‘there was a GFC’, ‘a new piece of technology came along’, ‘we got some research that showed that our customers were leaving us’ etc etc. There are things that have happened that explain a challenge that you have. The first panel was in the past, the second panel is then something happened or the turning point.

The third panel actually is your strategy. By now what you’ve done is you’ve explained the ‘why.’ The first two parts of the structure ‘In the past’ and ‘then something happened’ explained to people why you’ve made the strategic choices you’ve made.

The third panel of the structure is ‘This is what we’re going to do.” Is’s essentially your strategy. This panel describes what you’ve decided to do to tackle the challenge. Then the final part of the structure is, “If we do it really well, this is what we’re going to be like in the future.”

It’s a very simple structure and if you follow that structure, it forces you to put things in context so people understand the ‘why,’ before you get to the ‘what.’

That narrative structure in itself is not enough. In the course of telling that story you must give specific examples that illustrate the main points you want to get across. It’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of becoming ambiguous. Use some examples, some moments that illustrate the key points of your strategy story.


That’s excellent, and that’s really simple; that’s really straight forward. Again, we talked a little bit about this when we had our previous chat which is we so often get caught on the third panel which is the ‘what.’ That’s the thing that we start with, end with and think, “My instructions have been heard.” Again, leaders may not even come with that kind of mentality, but that’s how it comes across.

I love the idea and, again, it’s funny, because in non-profit land where I worked for a long time, this is exactly what we talk about, outcomes, we talk about impact. It’s similar stuff where you’ve helped somebody, or somebody has a situation and your service has helped them in some way to change their lives. Then they’ve changed their lives and then this is how it was made better. It’s really a very simple structure, but it’s very powerful. It’s a powerful way to tell your story, I think.


One of the key things about it is its simplicity. We don’t try and focus leaders on things like the dramatic arc, plot structures or that sort of thing. We are working with business people, it needs to be practical, simple, and you don’t want to scare people. If you ask people to construct a story and you give them a dramatic arc as a structure, it’s pretty scary and they immediately fall into this trap of going, “Oh, I need to get this right.”

Where, in fact, what they need to do is just have a go and so while using that very simple structure it’s easy for them to have a go. In fact, one of the things that we encourage people … there’s a writer called Anne Lamott who wrote a book Bird by Bird. In that book she talks about how writers write books and she says, “No book ever gets written without a fabulous third draft. No fabulous third draft ever happens without a good second draft; and no good second draft ever gets done,” and these are her words, not mine … “You can’t get a good second draft without a shitty first draft.” You’ve got to get people, very quickly, where they’re comfortable just having a go.


I always tell my clients that; it’s not going to be perfect; you just need to know your key points and connect. That’s the thing, though, is that when you’re telling a story like that and, again, when you start with a bit of mea culpa, or you start with your ‘why’ of this is what happened before, and you’re accounting for things that have happened. You immediately build some, even if it’s hard to build trust; you build some connection with the audience where they’re willing to. They’re not paying attention to the exact words you use. They’re paying attention to how you’re actually communicating with them and often they’re appreciative of that because you’ve created that connection.

I love that point because you see a lot of complexity around storytelling and, frankly, people just go back to sitting in English class and feel terrified. There are a lot of business leaders who are much more comfortable with finance or with other skill sets than, potentially writing. I think the easiest way for us to talk us out of using story and business is to over complicate it.


Absolutely. You’re quite right, it’s not the words, it’s what people feel and the emotions that are generated. Its important to focus on the emotions and the images that are created for people when you are creating and telling a strategic story.


Yes nice, nice. That’s it. We’ve got about three minutes left; we’re almost at the end of the show already. If you had a main point, that you wanted to share with people, you’ve shared lots of really great info, so you may have already said it or it might be hard to just nail it down to one thing.

If somebody is in a business that’s struggling to communicate and it needs to change, and the leaders want to change but they’re having trouble getting to a place where they can enable their staff to participate in that. What would your one piece of advice be? Where can they start?

Are you struggling to communicate?


That’s a big question, but here’s a metaphor that’s really useful. It’s a metaphor that’s been used a number of times, about the elephant and the rider. Where the elephant represents our emotions and the rider represents our logic. Most of the time in business we make the mistake of trying to influence the rider but the psychological research, particularly in the last 20 years, clearly shows that the rider isn’t in charge, it’s actually the elephant that’s in charge.

The key point would be we need to spend a lot more time talking to the elephant and less time talking to the rider. The rider is interested in facts, and data, and words. The elephant is interested in feelings, emotions, intuition, and so one of the key things that we can do to be more effective communicators is to spend more time talking to the elephant.

You need to avoid the situation where you stampede the elephant in the wrong direction. You want to get the elephant leaning towards you so that the elephant is open to new ideas, new ways of behaving; and story is a fantastic vehicle for talking to the elephant.


Nice. Everybody, you need to talk to the elephant. I love it, I love it, so that’s really great advice. I’ll never forget that now because I have the image of the stampede and people running and crashing off in corporate board rooms all over the place.

That’s a fantastic analogy and thank you so much Mark. I think it’s, in terms of that narrative structure for people to use in their businesses. I think that another one of the biggest messages is, yes, talk to elephant but also with the ‘why,’ it is enabling people to understand why the change is occurring, or why strategic directions are happening. Thank you so much, Mark, for taking the time to chat with me today.


It’s been a pleasure, Lianne, thank you for the opportunity


Thank you. Thanks again to Mark Schenk from Anecdote. Anecdote does amazing work helping leaders and companies to share their strategic vision through story. I love their commitment to bringing more humanity to the workplace; it’s a really important piece. That’s where story has a special spot in my opinion. Check out Anecdote and find out more about their services. They are based in Australia but they have their Storytelling for Leaders Program, they run that in various places around the world.

You can listen to the full podcast below:

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

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