Storytelling to Make Your Case

Recently I had a chance to review a number of business cases that people had submitted as part of a workshop. This was not a theoretical exercise: people submitted real requests to initiate a major project or task with the idea that after their cases were critiqued, they could submit them to their managers or departments or boards. All of the cases were well written: the analysis was sound, risks were contemplated, ROI was calculated, and all of the alternatives were discussed. Some business cases, however, were more compelling than others.

The difference between preparing a good business case and a great business case lies in one’s ability to compel people to embrace the change proposed. After I read each case, I’d ask myself if I felt change was needed. If not, then no matter how solid the analysis that followed, the case simply did not sing and in the real world would have less chance of being approved.

John Kotter, in his change model, discusses how most people shy away from change and try to find reasons to preserve the status quo. He discusses the need to create a burning platform to outline the reasons that the status quo is no longer viable.  In order to encourage change, it is important to engage both the hearts and the minds of the powers that be. One of the most effective ways of addressing the intellect and the emotions is to tell a good story. People who need to convince people to do things on a regular basis – politicians, lawyers, marketers, CEOs – know that storytelling is a powerful tool. As Robert McAfee Brown wrote, “storytelling speaks as no other mode of communication can do.”

Good leaders are often very effective storytellers. One of the videos that makes the rounds from time to time is Steve Jobs’s speech to Stanford’s graduating class. He tells three very simple stories about his upbringing, his career, and his illness to illustrate his point that in order to succeed in life you must stay open to all of the changes life throws one’s way. Recently, Stephen Elop’s burning platform memo to Nokia employees painted a very clear picture that change (in this case embracing Windows 7) was needed in order to survive. There is much debate as to whether Elop’s strategy was sound, but his case certainly was compelling.

From a creative writing perspective, good storytelling basically boils down to mapping out the following four things:

1) Who is the story about? As an example, Homer’s Odyssey is about a Greek soldier, Odysseus, who has been away from home for 10 years fighting the Trojan War.

2) What does he want? What is his motivation? Odysseus wants to get home to his family in Ithaca.

3) What obstacles are in his way? Mythological bad guys: Calypso, Poseidon, Sirens, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis…

4) What are the consequences if he fails? Odysseus’s son will be killed and long-suffering wife Penelope will have to marry one of the circling suitors wishing to take over his kingdom.

This marries nicely with the way a business case is laid out:

1) Who are the stakeholders? Who will be impacted by the change? Who will benefit most?

2) What changes do they want? This is a chance to outline the changes being proposed.

3) What are the impediments to change? This addresses that change will be hard — maybe not Scylla and Charybdis hard, but hard nonetheless.

4) What happens if change does not happen? This is an opportunity to discuss that burning platform, to outline what will happen to sales, profits, market share, or the stock price if change does not happen. If this change is personal, it’s even more compelling.

Llewellyn Powers wrote that “A trembling in the bones may carry a more convincing testimony than the dry, documented deductions of the brain.” While not every business case has to carry the same emotional weight as a good book or movie, if it is created with slightly more passion and energy than a standard wireless contract, there is a significantly better chance it will be approved.

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