Should you turn a crisis into a drama?

Should you turn a crisis into a drama? 1

It’s been a dramatic week, hasn’t it? It all started with the shock announcement that after 27 years together, Tiger Woods was parting company with Nike. Then a Boeing 737 lost a fuselage panel mid-air, causing a rather obvious need for an emergency landing. I’m predicting that will become a Hollywood movie before long, as the crisis is turned into a drama.

However, the most dramatic news of the week was the UK Government being galvanised in to action having dragged its heels for decades over the “Post Office Scandal”. But the crisis for the Government arose because of a drama.

If you are outside the UK, you may not have heard of this. Back in 1999 the Post Office introduced a new computer system. It turned out that it was botched and pretty much useless. But the Post Office appears to have pretended that all was OK and that people who had problems with it were all told that nobody else had reported any issues. Hundreds were prosecuted for false accounting or theft, with many going to prison or being declared bankrupt. And this was all because the powers-that-be in the Post Office didn’t want to admit their system was faulty, even though they knew it was. Instead, they blamed the users.

This has been known about for decades, with newspapers first reporting on it over 20 years ago. However, what roused public anger was a TV drama which brought the issue to life. Within a week of that drama airing, the Government changed the law – something that could have happened many years ago. The unsafe convictions will all be quashed. People are to be compensated and the bosses at the Post Office and it supplier, Fujitsu, are now facing interrogation with the likelihood of criminal charges being very high indeed. Good.

What’s fascinating is that the Post Office crisis had to be turned into a drama before many people took notice. Meanwhile, people have been so shocked about a plane starting to disintegrate in mid-air that it is inevitable that film makers will turn that crisis in to a drama too.

So, what is it about a drama that can do things that a mere crisis is unable to achieve? There are two key features about dramas that make them so engaging. One is they tell a compelling story. They have a hero, a villain and a resolution of some kind. The other factor is that they are strong on emotion.

A crisis, though, just has a problem, some known facts and some unknown matters. A crisis is about a situation, not people. Indeed, the TV drama that kicked MPs up the rear end with a thud was called “Mr Bates vs the Post Office”. The title alone shows that it is about an individual – our hero – who had a battle against a villain – The Post Office. The resolution in the drama was the quashing of several criminal convictions.

In the inevitable movie about the Boeing incident there will be a hero pilot (my bet is on Tom Hanks), and the villain will be some geek who wasn’t too bothered about loose bolts. More people will probably see such a movie than read the news story about the incident itself.

Emotion and story telling go hand in hand. But in business we are told to be factual and avoid emotion. That is patent nonsense. Just think of all those advertisements that try to make you cry or laugh. Advertisers know that an emotional story sells.

Yet in the office we are supposed to be strait-laced and formal. Even in informal workplaces these days, communication is still rigid with emotion and storytelling removed.

If you want people to take notice of you, then you need to frame what you are saying in emotional stories. Make sure someone – preferably not yourself – is cast as the hero. Someone else, perhaps a competitor or the Government, is your villain. Weave these two together to tell a story and you’ll get more attention than a dreary email spelling out the crisis you face in business-speak and technical jargon.

In the book “Business Storytelling for Dummies” the authors, Karen Dietz and Lori Silverman say that in business a story becomes reality “because people immediately engage with and internalize it”. That’s clearly what happened with the Post Office drama. Nobody who watched it could fail to empathise with the characters, and it is that emotional connection that has triggered MPs to legislate rapidly.

There is plenty of evidence that storytelling works. Indeed, even when communicating complex theoretical economics, storytelling proved to be significantly more effective than traditional methods in a study of more than 800 individuals.

You don’t have to face a crisis in your business to think about the dramatic effect of emotional storytelling. You can use it every day, for normal communication. And if you need any more evidence that storytelling works, just think about your own reaction to “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” – or any other drama that has told a real story.

And what’s the betting that few people will truly engage with the latest crisis of the week in the Red Sea until Hollywood produces a movie with a hero ship captain (Tom Hanks again) who defeats the Houthi rebels? If you are not turning a crisis into a drama in your office, then it is much more likely that the crisis will remain just that.

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