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Harnessing the power of narrative to change lives

Stories draw us in. We want to know what happens next. In a few short lines, we understand what’s happening, what the characters are doing, why they’re doing it and what they are up against. In a great story we care about our heroes - and their hopes and fears. Dawn Reeves, author, and Fran Collingham, LGA Associate, explain.

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Key points

  • Identify the golden thread that runs through stories in your organisation and use them as the basis to create a compelling story about where you are now and where you’re heading,
  • Be honest and authentic. Your story needs grit to feel real and unique to your place and your organisation,
  • Use your stories for different purposes – to drive service redesign, challenge behaviours, bring partners together and to showcase the values, behaviours and beliefs that drive you.
  • Listen to the stories you get told, understand what they’re telling you and then act on them to help shape your policies.

Making sense of the world

Stories aren’t just the novels, films and plays we enjoy, they’re the stuff of everyday small talk, corridor conversations and pub chats. They are how we make sense of the world.

Successful organisations understand the power of narrative and the value of telling a story as though it’s an epic tale. Sometimes it’s their founders who are their heroes, with stories about where they’ve come from and where they’re going to; organisations on a heroic quest to bring better technology to their customers. Often organisations shape their narratives with their customers as the hero of their narrative; sports brands like Nike and Adidas are good at this (the “This Girl Can” campaign to encourage women into sport is a brilliant example) and universities usually make their students the heroes of their narrative.

There is solid academic evidence base for the use of stories in organisations, places and leadership practice. Neuro-science shows that when a story is communicated the whole brain, rationale and emotional pathways are engaged, and action is more likely to follow.

Although some councils and their leadership teams are using stories as a strategic thinking tool (and organisations like the LGA and Solace have supported story-based projects) there is a long way to go.

It’s tempting to think that the complexity, diversity and difference of public sector organisations makes developing a strong, single narrative impossible. But while it can be challenging to get the story authentic and credible it can – and should – be done. Unless you’re telling the right stories about your council and your place others will tell them instead; filling the vacuum with tales that usually reinforce the lazy stereotyping of local government where the villains are town hall fat cats, barmy bureaucrats and jobsworths and the heroes are downtrodden, ignored and mistreated residents. If there’s no compelling narrative about your place as it is now, and the future it has planned you’ll end up battling labelling that may be decades old, based on news stories and clichés that describe an area your residents scarcely recognise.

These stories need changing. Our residents are our heroes; our politicians and employees should be their guides, mentors and allies – supporting and helping them on their journey wherever it takes them.

Creating a narrative takes time and energy. It calls for honesty and a deep understanding of what makes your place – the council and the area you serve – unique. This is not about drafting a general vision statement (“making xx the best place in the country to live, work and play”), it’s about telling a story about where you’ve been, where you are now and where you want to get to. It needs to acknowledge what’s tough or not working, explain how you’ll overcome these challenges, the values and behaviours that will steer you on your journey and what your world will look like when you’ve achieved all you want.

It’s also a strategic piece of work where the widest possible collaboration will deliver the best results. That doesn’t mean writing a story by committee (your final narrative should be crafted by the best writer in your organisation); but it should involve gathering employees and Members (and you could include a wide range of partners and stakeholders) together to share their stories.

Your best storytellers won’t necessarily be the people with the biggest voices, but those who communicate from the heart. They’re likely to include the Members who spend a lot of time in their communities, listening to and talking to their constituents, the frontline service staff who are out and about on the streets, or caring for your most vulnerable and the senior leaders doing the thinking about the future, the budgets and the resources. They will all have compelling stories to tell about the difference they make every day, the challenges they face, the small triumphs and tragedies that make working for a council so unique and important. These stories also anchor your organisation firmly in its place – the district, borough, city or county it serves, making sense of communities and what makes them special.

Gather these stories together and find the golden thread that links them all; they’ll explain what’s right and why it’s difficult (sometimes impossible) to do the right thing, what makes the place tick and what motivates and drives employees. Listen to them, share them  and use them as drivers for change (Bexley Council has gathered all these stories together into a book they’re giving to all their new Members to illustrate what it means to be a public servant in their borough).

Your stories will, by their very nature, be anecdotal, personal and focused on people. That makes them powerful tools for service redesign, ensuring people stay at the heart of decisions about services and helping your organisation develop strategies that make sense of your organisation and your world.

This can feel counter-intuitive to communications professionals who are increasingly – and rightly – focusing on using research, insight, hard facts and data to drive communications planning and delivery. But telling stories and gathering facts can work perfectly together by using the stories about people to make real and tangible the hard facts and data you know are important.

And in this digital age, with news outlets and communications channels fragmenting and diversifying, it can feel we’re overloaded with information; communicating through stories that resonate and stick becomes even more critical. 

Who knows where any council will be in ten years' time? And who knows which places will be successful and thriving? But stronger stories in all our communities helps everyone to understand the need for change, adapt and flex to face the future and bind people and places together in one shared, understood story that makes sense of the world.

Organisations need one story – but also need to tell and share many stories that will shape it and make it truly authentic. We all have stories in us; in the uncertain world we live in telling our stories powerfully, authentically and honestly will make our organisations and the places we serve stronger and more able to face the future with confidence.

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