Like everyone I love a good story. In fact I love a good story as much as I dislike a bad rumour. The difference between a story and a rumour is that a rumour is a piece of information (or a story) that has not been verified – the person telling it doesn’t know if it’s true or false. I was at two meetings in the US last week talking about our people – many amazing stories – and our business – some quite amazing rumours.
Storytelling can be as good for an organisation as rumours can be bad. A good story brings clarity to any communication and can be of more value than any number of PowerPoint slides. Telling stories is a great way to capture and share knowledge through an organisation. We all connect to a good story on an emotional level. We remember a good story. Storytelling is one of the most useful forms of communication any of us ever use.
Unfortunately, similar factors also apply to rumours. For a rumour to spread it need only align with our hopes or – more often – our fears. The impact of a rumour has (by definition) nothing to do with its truthfulness but rather has everything to do with the intensity of our emotions to which it appeals.
Rumours are hard to stop…which can be a shame. Rumours can cause unnecessary anxiety or sometimes unwarranted optimism – neither of which is helpful. Rumours seldom help anyone and almost always have little, or no, truth associated with them, no matter how believable or opportune they may sound, or how reliable the source may appear.
I have always wondered where rumours start in an organisation. Who first said what to who; when and where? The scientist in me has often thought it would be interesting to track the flow of information through an organisation. For example, is it really true that all emails and instant messages in a company are recorded for audit and monitoring purposes?
But there’s actually an argument that stopping information sharing would be even worse. If we were all punished if our stories weren’t 100% accurate then – likely as not – no-one would tell any stories to anyone. The impact of well founded story telling on an organisation’s culture can be both significant and positive.
That having been said, stopping is very different from correcting. It can be important to correct an inaccurate rumour, or worse still, a malicious rumour. The most effective strategy to correct a rumour I have experienced is by being as open and as transparent as possible. Share as much balanced information as possible as soon as possible (ideally by telling stories).
And the simplest way to differentiate a rumour from a story? Verify the information. Ask someone who will know. The tell-tale signs are worth looking out for as well. Rumours are always based on emotion, contain no facts, are impossible to validate and only ever lead to emotional conclusions. Stories on the other hand, are based on logic, always contain facts, are easy to validate and are designed to lead to rational (but hopefully exciting) solutions or ideas.
We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with them. I have already told many people most of the stories I heard last week. Stories of outstanding people making things happen, helping each other and getting things done. Stories of great teams, excellent ideas and delighted partners. Stories that engaged me, inspired me and compelled me. Stories that made me laugh out loud. Stories about people who made me feel proud.