My mother-in-law has a saying: “Never ruin a good story with the truth.”
The first time I heard her say it, the trained-journalist part of my mind recoiled in horror. But the more I help organizations and employees tell stories that support their colleagues’ performance and drive business goals, the more sense her advice makes.
Accuracy for accuracy’s sake often gets in the way of telling a story that speaks to your entire organization.
Don’t get me (or my mother-in-law) wrong – the truth is important! But stories have to match their audience. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about storytelling in the workplace, it’s that accuracy for accuracy’s sake often gets in the way of telling a story that speaks to your entire organization.
Here’s an example.
I recently helped a quality-control manager share a story about how he convinced his leaders to eliminate a mostly redundant documentation process that affected a subset of a subset of the production lines his colleagues monitored. In the name of accuracy, he wanted to explain the byzantine details of nonconformance reporting and differences in inspection checklists from one product to another.
That’s a story only a quality-control manager could love.
But with a little coaching, a different story emerged: He saw a process that was creating hundreds of hours of frustrating busywork for his colleagues, felt it wasn’t right, and decided to do something about it. He acted with integrity – one of his organization’s core values – and as a result, he won leadership support for a change that made his colleagues’ work easier and more productive.
That’s the story every employee of his organization needed to hear.
If the point of that IT manager’s story was to show people how they, too, could eliminate redundant documentation processes, exact accuracy would be good. But if that had been our goal, we didn’t need to tell a story; we could have just given instructions.
Stories serve a different purpose: to connect your audience to your experience. Not so they can replicate the exact steps you took, but so they can connect to how you were thinking and feeling in that moment, and learn something that might support them through the challenges they’re facing in their own work.
Accuracy only matters to the extent it supports that connection. For the quality-control manager, that meant letting go of the inspection details and focusing on his desire to do the right thing. His story is now spreading among thousands of his colleagues, helping them connect with the message that integrity can create positive change.
My mother-in-law would be so proud!
—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer
Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.
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