Tell a Story to Make Your Point Stick

Stories will make your point stick better than if you just kept to the facts. Facts without stories are statistics. Stories without facts are myths. Engaging stories with interesting facts can become legends.

Here are two bullet points from my resume which check off several positive flags:

  • Improved on time shipment rates 300% through an unconventional procedural change in scheduling production orders; Q3 2012 Customer Allegiance Score award finalist
  • Created an online order status communication tool with 180+ active global users lauded as “best in class” by Thermo Fisher Scientific’s CEO; tool is automatically updated from SAP four times per day requiring no additional human interaction

They have action verbs, quantifiable metrics and even mentions of accolades. All in all, these bullet points may stick in the reviewer’s mind for a full minute before they move on to gather more data. That would be one minute’s worth of recognition for a full year’s worth of struggle and success. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade, does it?

How could I get the reader to understand the impact that this action had on my business, my career, and my life? I have to tell the story.

In Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, he describes that there are a few common story lines which cross over just about every cultural boundary. One classic theme involves an ordinary protagonist who leaves his or her small village in order to solve a problem. The hero meets comrades along the way who help improve him or her. Then, there is always the antagonist who besets our hero and knocks them down temporarily. However, through demonstration of one of the inherent virtues that our hero had at the beginning of the journey and additional skills that his allies had helped provide, the hero is victorious in the end. Our protagonist then returns to heal the village and is rewarded for his efforts.

Now, I will tell a story about these bullets using some classic themes in order to make their points stick.

One morning over coffee, I confided to my wife that I felt it had been a long time since I had done anything that was just downright difficult. Years ago, I had tackled some of the Army’s toughest schools: West Point, Airborne, Ranger. But now, I just seemed to be caught up in typical business problems like anyone else. She asked about the biggest challenge that I was facing at work. I quickly told her that we just couldn’t seem to accurately tell our customers when we would ship their orders and nobody was happy about it. Go fix that, she said.

In my imagination, what I really wanted was a simple electronic application to notify my customers when their order would ship and when it actually had shipped. Whenever I ordered something online from Amazon, I would have this information at my fingertips. For most of us, it has just become an expectation. However, here I was working for a high-tech company and we couldn’t provide this to our customers. My first problem was that I had no idea how to program an application like this. However, the bigger problem was that even if I had this wonderful application, we really didn’t believe the shipment dates we were promising.

My planning staff had been scheduling orders for years and had developed some work around systems so that they could, more or less reliably, tell a customer when the order would ship. However, a recently hired subject matter expert had enforced a new structure which would automatically calculate an order’s shipment date based upon some data in our system. Unfortunately, this new, automatic date was rarely correct due to some real business challenges that the system couldn’t necessarily track. An incorrectly calculated date and several business planning errors were causing us to ship orders much too early or much too late to meet our customers’ expectations. Frustrations were growing in just about every corner of our business. This had to change.

Over long talks with my staff, we came to the conclusion that the automatically calculated date wasn’t providing us or our customers any value. Sure, it saved time, but it was wrong. My team just really wanted to have a single field on the electronic order where we could manually type in the date that we plan on shipping. The planners would then ensure that the manual date was hit.

After conferring with an IT mentor of mine, we came across an old unused field on the order which had been put in place years ago but the business procedure had faded into disuse. The field was still there but wasn’t connected to anything. Excitedly, I went to my boss with a plan: we would use this field to manually record our shipment date. I would need his help to fend off objections from the subject matter expert and he agreed. I knew that this would probably ruffle feathers but doing the right thing isn’t always easy.

Using this new order field, my team spent the next several months scheduling orders and measuring their progress against this date. When we started on this journey, our on time shipment rate had been around the 20% mark because just about none of our orders shipped according to the calculated date. However, with this new methodology, we were starting to get around 80% of all shipments shipping on time.

Now that we were starting to believe and deliver upon the dates we were providing, I had to come up with my dream application. Although I had no idea how to make this application look or work the way I wanted, I knew that I could learn just about anything I put my mind to. I set out to teach myself some programming languages and, with some guidance from my IT mentor, connected with several technical guys who helped me get my database online. After studying Steve Jobs’ customer-centric philosophy and the simplicity built into some of the best iPhone applications, I created myMO (My Molecular Order).

myMO has a single input interface. Simply type in your order number and it searches through the past six months’ worth of data to give you the date we promised the order would ship, when it actually shipped, and a clickable tracking number. After clicking the link, you would go to the carrier’s online page to let you know, for example, that Mr. Jones from Receiving signed for your shipment on Wednesday.

Instead of days to get this information to our customers, myMO was doing it in seconds. Sales representatives didn’t have to find the right planner, they had myMO. Order entry specialists didn’t have to search through dozens of dates and wonder about their authenticity, they had myMO. My team didn’t have to wonder if our customers were fully aware of the hard work they put in, they had myMO.

After my team got our on time shipment record up to a sustained Class A standard of 95%, we became a Q3 finalist for one of the best customer facing projects in our Fortune 300 company. Our CEO, when he got a chance to see myMO in action, praised it as a “best in class” application truly meeting our customer’s needs. The subject matter expert just couldn’t argue with our demonstrated success.

I wanted to do something truly difficult but I couldn’t have done it on my own. With prompting from my wife, hard work and advice from my team, guidance from my mentor, and long hours of learning new languages, we had created something to be proud of.

Stories let us convey our virtues; they help bind a culture. They can also help make the factual memorable. Be sure to lean heavily on the power of the story when you’re leading within Intimate Proximity.