Digital transformation: How to tell a compelling story that wins buy-in

Aligning your organization around digital transformation takes more than facts and figures. Here's how the power of storytelling can lock in commitment
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digital transformation storytelling tips

Getting an organization to align around digital transformation may be one of the most difficult leadership challenges you can face. To do this, you will need to leverage the single most powerful tool of human persuasion: Storytelling.

Why are stories effective? The human brain is wired to pay close attention to stories because that is how humans learned survival skills. We have been genetically programmed to seek out stories, especially if the story follows certain critical structural characteristics that suggest that it has survival value.

If you want people to not just pay attention but be receptive to change, use stories. Your digital transformation pitch should be a story that makes them say, "I need to do something different; I need to take action,” with enough conviction to overcome their fear of change.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

What makes a compelling digital transformation story?

Let’s start by explaining what a story is not: A story is not a list of things you are going to do, no matter how bold or necessary they are. A story is not a resource plan or a budget. A story is not a brilliant vision for an app, even if it is presented dramatically and includes a beautiful screen design and an extensive list of features.

A story is a series of incidents, real or invented, told in a logical order. Furthermore, a story has a specific framework that makes that series of incidents meaningful to our genetic “story-seeking” programming.

Building a story-based digital transformation pitch

Here are seven steps to help you use a storytelling approach to pitch for digital transformation:

Step 1: Establish the world of the story

Describe the current situation: “We have an audience of committed customers. However, that audience has gotten smaller over the last few years and our revenues have suffered.” Offer statistics that support your perspective.

Step 2: Introduce the problem and the villain

“Digital disruptors like [insert your company’s nemesis] are offering our customers a more innovative experience.” Include examples: “They show no sign of stopping. In fact, it’s increasing.” Share competitive intelligence.

Step 3: Summarize the burning platform and paint a scary picture of the current trajectory

“If we don’t do something substantially different, we will continue to lose market share to these competitors. While we have brought some new products to market with incremental improvements, they do not appear to be enough to fight off these disruptors of our industry.” Share examples and recent stats.

At this point, you want your audience to be uncomfortable – think the Empire targets Princess Leia’s home world with the Death Star. The situation looks bleak.

What will the Rebellion do? What do they need? A plan! You want your audience to beg, “What can we do?” This is the optimal tee-up to the details of your strategy.

Step 4: Reveal a bold plan

Here’s where you introduce the plan to get from Point A to Point B. Whether your actual strategy involves a new content management system, an app update, more personalization, or increased spending on search engine marketing, lay it out.

By structuring your pitch as a story, you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seats, begging to hear how you are going to overcome the terrible problem you have described.

Include details. By structuring your pitch as a story, you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seats, begging to hear these details, because that’s how you are going to overcome the terrible problem you have described. If you simply start with the plan, you’ll lose your audience: Plans are boring. Strategies to save the universe, presented in the context of a story, are exciting.

Give your audience a role to play in this exciting adventure. As part of the drama, explain what is currently holding you back – budget, politics, technology, alignment. And let them know how they can help the plan succeed – tell them how to be the hero that makes it all work.

Step 5: Use nested stories

Even after you’ve explained how to stop the threat, you need to provide evidence that your strategy will work.

Business results are driven largely by customer behavior, which depends on their experiences. Your plan should posit that if the company takes certain actions, customers will respond in a specific way that aligns with your business goals.

If your audience remains skeptical, consider using a nested story. A nested story is simply a story within a story: While telling one story, drop into another story, finish it, and then go back and finish the original story.

For example, suppose your pitch involves the story of your company, the challenges it faces, and a strategy to overcome it. Before you complete that story, drop in another story or stories that illustrate your strategy in action. Each one describes a different type of customer, their goals, the challenges that lead them to your brand, and how you give them a great experience – essentially, telling how your company helps them execute their strategy.

The drama of the story creates interest, but the point of the story is to illustrate the strategy in action. Help the audience understand why the strategy will lead to customers buying more, telling their friends, or whatever the objective of a given story is.

Nested stories create suspense. When you are in the middle of a story and you interrupt it with a new story, your audience will focus on what it can learn from the new story while they wait for the old story to complete. They have two reasons to pay attention.

Step 6: Let the audience become co-creators

Stories are powerful because they generate emotion, and most people make decisions emotionally. But they are also critical thinkers who will try to justify their decisions rationally.

Your audience knows that you can’t be certain how the story will play out, so they may ask questions like, “What if our competitors do X?” “What if customers don’t respond as rapidly as we hope?” or “What if our technical architecture isn’t able to handle the scale?”

Responding effectively to spontaneous concerns will boost your credibility as it shows you have mastered the subject matter, not just memorized an inspiring presentation.

At this point, your job is to explain how the story might adjust to these twists and turns. This is the time to pull out the facts, figures, and any other stories that support your strategy. Responding effectively to spontaneous concerns will boost your credibility as it shows you have mastered the subject matter, not just memorized an inspiring presentation.

Of course, you may not have an answer for everything, and you may not be certain that every part of the plan will work perfectly. Be positive but honest. Remind your audience that there are always ways to adjust and that the consequences of inaction are worse than the risk that the strategy might not be flawless.

You can also use this as an opportunity to make the audience “co-authors” of the story to leverage their knowledge and increase their ownership. What do they think would be a good fallback if some part of the strategy doesn’t play out exactly as envisioned? Facilitate discussion and collaboration.

Step 7: Ensure a satisfying ending

Good stories have emotionally satisfying endings. Once the Q&A is finished, review what it’s all about and define what victory means at both a company and a personal level.

For example, Rocky Balboa won money and fame with the heavyweight title, but he also inspired people around the world. That’s the higher-level definition of victory. Your higher-level victory may be saving jobs, delighting your customers, or being true to the vision of the company’s founders.

All strategies involve risk. If you want your employees to come to work every day committed to making your story real, they need to see and feel the victory on the other side of that risk and be inspired by what it will mean for themselves, their future, their families, their company, their customers, and the world. Whether victory involves saving the galaxy from tyranny or successfully transforming your company to thrive in a digital world, it should have genuine emotional resonance.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Howard Tiersky is the founder and CEO of FROM, the digital transformation agency. He is also the author of the upcoming book Winning Digital Customers: The Antidote to Irrelevance.