Data Builds Understanding; Stories Build Commitment

Once Upon A Time

Last week I raised the question (and answered it) “Why are there so many bad meetings?” This week I focus more on the positive:  what good meetings feel like, and how some organizations are working to not only enhance meeting experiences but also to make meetings more effective and meaningful.

Recently a friend told me about how one clothing company has developed a culture of storytelling that dramatically affects the way its meetings work.

According to Mary, a director of workplace strategy at that company, its meetings are filled with storytelling, and the presentations are heavily image-based, with a minimum of words on the individual slides. So instead of boring bullet points and slides filled to overflowing with data, the presentations feel more like personal stories, with heroes and villains, crises and victories, and lots of emotional content. Presenters seek to influence and inspire through images, stories, and feelings rather than through “hard data.”

Even more intriguing, Mary told me that those meetings are incredibly non-traditional in other ways as well. The meeting rooms usually include a variety of brightly-colored lounge chairs, participants are often standing on balance boards, sitting on exercise balls, or lying down stretching their backs. It’s a way of people taking care of their physical wellbeing as well as their mental state; and that informal, almost-anything-goes tone contributes richly to creativity, innovation, and a sense of anything is possible.

Mary also mentioned that there are very few meeting spaces with formal conference tables; most rooms are filled with lounge furniture, informal wall coverings, and unusual art objects. She also mentioned that many of the best meetings are unscheduled; as a workplace strategist she is particularly pleased that her company is committed to making many different collaborative spaces available. There is an overabundance of places to choose from for unplanned, spur-of-the-moment conversations (whether for two people or for ten).

In her words:

In my experience the best ideas come from what we call “accidental collaboration.” A couple of people see each other, start talking, perhaps move to a nearby unused space with a white board, and all of a sudden they’ve created a new product idea, or a new ad campaign. Having those places available without needing a reservation is what sparks new ideas over and over and over again.

Mary told me her company’s culture is much stronger than any other organization she’s worked with. The company has always valued inspiring stories, and the few presentation slides that people do rely on are usually filled with images chosen to trigger emotional commitments rather than make that third bullet point on the seventeenth slide stand out.

Mary’s description of how meetings unfold at her company reminded of my early experiences as a technology management consultant. In that world we often acted sort of like the mythical character Johnny Appleseed who spread all kinds of plant seeds from one location to another to share the richness of the land and to enhance the environment wherever he went.

Our consulting work included many presentations that served as educational experiences, planting seeds of understanding about what was possible. We discovered that our clients were not overly impressed by data-based arguments about how productive some particular new technology was; they wanted to hear stories about how other companies had used it and how it affected both the bottom line and the day-to-day experiences of employees and customers.

Man with TelescopePeter Drucker once commented that the value of outside consultants was not so much that the consultants knew more than a company’s own staff, but that they had seen more. Again, it is stories – especially stories with an exciting plot or a hero – that enable people to make commitments to embark down new pathways and to feel comfortable trying out new ways of getting something done.

For me, the lesson from this storytelling and informal meeting culture is that the more “natural” a meeting is, in terms of atmosphere, meeting room, tone, and storytelling, the more likely it will produce innovative, meaningful ideas, insights, decisions, and commitments to action. What more could you ask for?

Contact me for a free one-hour consultation about how you can design and lead corporate conversations that engage your team and enhance organizational outcomes.