Storytelling has become a ubiquitous business buzzword. Several books have been written about it in recent years and it gets worked into a plethora of business pitches and advertisements. The trouble with buzzwords is that often they trivialise the philosophies from which they’ve been borrowed.
We’re currently at a time where most people recognise that storytelling has a place in business, however many don’t really know where it fits in or how to use it. That has created a phenomenon where everybody is talking about storytelling and shoe-horning the word story into their presentations while few are actually telling stories or using the art of storytelling to great effect.
Storytelling is a powerful communication tool. The wisdom of the ages has been preserved because it was handed down the generations through myths legends, fables and parables.
Neurologically we’re wired for narratives; it’s how our brains work. Consider any great story – it begins with a tension or conflict that triggers us to seek for a conclusion. Then, a strong narrative arc that enables us to form pictures in our minds and feel emotions as the story unfolds captivates us while the teller navigates us to resolution. Even more important is that stories connect people to each other because of the resonance they create - we identify with stories and think ‘yes that sounds like me too’.
There are several places where storytelling fits into business and here are five of the key areas where it can work well to enhance the success of your business communications:
1. Every brand needs a lapel-grabbing narrative
Telling the story of your brand is essential and most people who operate in the world of brand communications use will use the ‘s’ word liberally. However it is rare to see a brand communication that’s truly in a story format. Christmas 2013 did see some novel storytelling and animation from the high street retailers and gained them some great customer engagement. But storytelling is not just for Christmas and is not only the reserve of animated fairy-tales. There is a hunger for real stories that has been fuelled by a decade of news coverage showing that all is not what it seems. There is a dearth of trust between consumers and the corporate enterprises that sell to them. To close that trust gap businesses need to tell the real stories behind their brands.
Telling authentic brand stories means that it’s not enough just to communicate to the letter of the truth, they also need to adhere to the spirit of the truth too. In addition to the brand story, consumers are inspired to hear stories such as the company’s passion for their brands, their concern for consumers’ wellbeing, their sustainability and social responsibility initiatives.
So the true power of storytelling is not about adding sizzle to the gristle but in elegantly using the art of storytelling to tell consumers that their interests are at the heart of your business.
2. Effective teams comprise individuals with integrated stories
Teams are made up of individuals each with their unique set of stories. Some of those are about the business goals and others are about the relationships. Team collaboration is the sweet-spot between healthy debate and productive discussion followed by empowered action. At the extremes teams can be cacophonous or harmonious and neither is ideal. The art of storytelling can be used to identify sources of discontent and then to create a new empowering team story that aligns people. That in turn builds the energy, motivation and determination that ultimately fuels success.
3. Company culture reflects the harvest of stories on its grapevine
Large scale mergers, de-mergers or other changes to business structures are commonplace. When these occur it isn’t enough to integrate business systems to get the company flowing smoothly again. To maximize the success potential integrating the people is essential. We are storytelling creatures and everyone has a story about every situation that they are in.
People’s stories are windows into their belief systems. Their perspective at any given moment is their reality at that time. In any organisation there are as many stories about what’s going on as there are people. When there is an aligned culture within the organisation the stories that people inside the organisation believe and tell are coherent and that creates a powerful synergy to catapult the business forward.
When people are aligned everyone moves forward together in resonance. However when that’s not the case, rather than having the laser focus that is essential for success the energies of people within the business become dissipated.
The key is in engaging people and understanding their stories – recognising that these stories reflect their beliefs and values. That sets the stage for the creation of a new integrated story that brings the different strands of the business together to create a new cultural story that propels the company forward with hearts and minds aligned.
4. Storytelling is the torch that illuminates a leader’s vision
Whether it’s to communicate a vision, a new business direction or get a team or entire company energized for the next year or cycle - storytelling is the number one communication tool. Why? Remembering how legends, myth and parables have survived the ages handed down often by word of mouth and easily shared between people – that’s the perfect scenario.
Studies have shown that a well-told story, with a traditional narrative arc, takes people on a journey, stimulates their emotions, causes the release of neurotransmitters in their brain and makes it more likely that they will take action. The story or stories that are told might be true personal stories, anecdotes from industry or markets, traditional myths or legends that extol the message, or a myth that you craft yourself to engage and stimulate your audience.
5. Personal stories resonate universally
The most powerful use of storytelling by far, is to tell a personal tale with a moral or a learning that communicates your message. The phenomenal popularity of the brand TED is a testament to the power of personal storytelling to spread ideas. However what story do you tell and what is the balance between a story being too personal vs. too general?
Everyone has thousands of stories to tell from their business and personal lives. Your personal story could be an anecdote from your career - and that’s often the territory where people feel most safe to share a story. However there is a paradox in that the more personal a story you tell the more it is likely to resonate universally. That’s because our personal stories usually tap into fundamental life themes such as overcoming fear through courage, getting up after a rejection, trusting your intuition, learning from losing or winning against all odds, and a myriad of others. So while you might balk at the idea of sharing a story from your personal life it may enable you to connect with your audience and communicate in a deep and memorable way.
There is one caveat for telling personal stories to an audience, especially if these stories have been emotionally challenging for you. It’s wise to make sure that you have healed them sufficiently first so that you have a healthy balance between being connected with them and detached from them. That way your audience can resonate with their poignancy without feeling burdened by them. Well told, however, these stories can have a powerful impact on the way your message is received and remembered by your audience.
Every business problem has at its heart a communication conundrum. Well used, storytelling is mind-bogglingly powerful at bringing clarity to every area of business communications whether they are customer-facing such as in branding and corporate communications or internal such as in leadership, cultural change, team dynamics and innovation.
You can’t get away from the fact that storytelling is already influencing your business. Your customers tell themselves stories about your products and services and they tell those anecdotes to others, often on social media. Employees tell themselves and each other stories about the business too and those tales have an impact on motivation, morale and productivity, for better or for worse.
Once you begin to identify the stories that are already influencing your business both externally and internally you may be amazed at what you’ll discover. If these narratives are enhancing the business then it’s time to build upon them, craft more of them and share them widely. However they may not be the stories that you want to tell and have told. The good news is that these stories can be changed, new narratives can be created that are more focused and empowering and once they are communicated these stories can herald a new wave of business success.
About the Author
Claire Taylor is a Writer, Storyteller, Business Consultant and co-founder of The Story Mill, an innovative organisation that encourages businesses to engage in real conversations using the art of storytelling. Claire has worked as a Senior Executive for some of the largest brands in healthcare including Novartis, Abbott/Abbvie, Pharmacia/Pfizer, Takeda and Lundbeck. Claire is author of ‘The Tao of Storytelling – 30 Ways to create empowering stories to live by’.