Why tech chiefs must master the art of storytelling

The sheer complexity of digital transformations can be alienating. The onus is on CIOs to make them comprehensible to all stakeholders by providing a clear, compelling story

By their very nature, digital transformations tend to be large and complex undertakings that aren’t widely understood outside the IT function. This has obliged many CIOs to articulate a convincing vision of the future to win the support of their boards and rally the whole organisation around ideas that may be hard for the lay person to grasp. It’s no mean feat. 

Excellent communication skills are vital – non-technical employees must first understand a largely tech-led strategy if they are going to buy into it. But the important task of explaining the plan in the most relatable and compelling terms is often overlooked.

“This can be a dry and complex subject, of which relatively few people have a deep knowledge,” says Haig Tyler, CIO at global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. “But, with technology affecting all aspects of our lives, this knowledge gap needs to be addressed – hence the need for storytelling.” 

He continues: “Good CIOs have recognised the importance of their role as ‘chief translation officers’ for a while. Change is a participation sport. If people are to participate, they first need to buy into their part in the story. Plain language and an empathy for the listener are essential for communicating the rationale for, and means of, change.” 

A compelling narrative needn’t come in the form of a tub-thumping TED Talk with a fancy slide deck. But a CIO must explain clearly why the change is required – including the key commercial advantages of doing so – and how its most tangible aspects will affect employees’ work. 

“The power of storytelling is that it creates an emotional connection to otherwise dry facts and figures. CIOs have to master this art, as they are key in leading their organisations through such changes. They must align people towards a common goal and bring them along to achieve it,” says Ravi Mayuram, CTO at software developer Couchbase. “We accomplish all this by inspiring them. The most direct way to achieve that is to tell stories of why the business needs to take on the project and what it means to employees, their organisation and its customers.”

Trailblazing CIOs are doing this by providing ‘fireside chats’ on video for all staff to view, relaying relevant case studies and encouraging champions of change from outside the IT team to tell their stories on the corporate intranet. In these businesses there’s a realisation that technology is no longer something ‘those people in the IT department over there do’ in a silo. It affects everyone in the organisation.

An audience can quickly smell whether a storyteller is being genuine or not. A strong narrative is based on the integrity of both the story and the teller

“A modern CIO is in the business of changing the culture of their organisation,” Mayuram argues. “For that to happen, their stories need to be carried through word of mouth and repeated in hallways, around watercoolers or in any other places where the CIO is not present. Only when this happens will a story become organisational knowledge and stay in the collective corporate memory.” 

But he adds a note of caution: “While storytelling is important and powerful, it has to be authentic. An audience can quickly smell whether a storyteller is being genuine or not. A strong narrative is based on the integrity of both the story and the teller. Results will follow only if everything is authentic.” 

It helps CIOs that the fundamental importance of digital transformation projects is becoming more widely understood beyond the IT function. This is crucial, according to Tyler, who says: “Let’s just call out digital transformation for what it is: this is about business transformation.”

Given the impact that digital technology is having on real customer experiences and actual corporate profits, the dry, jargon-filled language of the IT professional needs a makeover, he argues. 

“Do you say that you ‘have a data strategy focusing on improving information governance and control, ensuring that the business is an effective steward of the material it holds, where the taxonomy is sound and each activity delivers usable data’? Or do you simply describe a vision of the future in which ‘sound data informs better decisions’? The latter is not only easier to say; it’s also easier to hear and understand,” Tyler says.

Non-IT staff who are evangelists for the cause, particularly if they’re part of the leadership team, can prove key allies to the CIO in communicating the case for the transformation. With this in mind, wise IT chiefs are engaging with potential internal champions and encouraging them to help spread the word in layman’s terms.

Corporate narratives have acquired a more personal touch in many companies that have had to adopt remote working over the past two years, as C-suite members converse with their staff on video from their living rooms to a background soundtrack of children playing and dogs barking. 

As Michael Smets, professor of management at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, has discovered, “many business leaders have reported forming a more human connection with their teams” since the first Covid lockdown was imposed in the UK in 2020. 

The need for new compelling corporate narratives won’t be diminishing any time soon. As the technology delivers more and more benefits, our expectations of it only tend to increase. This indicates that storytelling will have to evolve over time into a continual conversation. 

When Tyler says “change is a participation sport”, he means that the process must engage the hearts and minds of as many stakeholders as possible. And ongoing dialogue will be key to ensuring that this happens.