Before there were books there was Storytelling (also called oral tradition). The history of the clan was handed down in the form of stories from father to son. Later, men were trained in how to deliver a good story and earned their living as bards or as storytellers, travelling from town to town passing along news as they went. In modern times, children are told bedtime stories by our parents. As a result, we are almost conditioned to listen when someone starts to tell us a story. How many times have you stayed up late reading a novel that you couldn’t put down, or watching a movie that you couldn’t turn off? Assuming that the storyteller has any skill at all, we soon start to lose ourselves in the story, learning and becoming engaged at the same time.
Storytelling affecting the business
Today, almost all good presenters and leaders will use stories to engage their audiences / teams. Trainers use stories to illustrate their points, managers can use narratives to help push past conflicts within the team, marketing teams tell stories in advertising to get the customers engaged.
In his book, Tell to Win, Peter Guber joins writers like Annette Simmons and Stephen Denning in praising the power of story in human affairs generally, and business in particular. Guber argues that:
Humans simply aren’t moved to action by “data dumps,” dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion and the best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…”
Unfortunately, most people don’t think they are story tellers and will freeze up when put on the spot, but in fact we all tell stories every day. When we talk to friends and colleagues about our weekend, about our families and lives, we are telling stories. My advice?
Anecdotes about your children, pets and friends all come under the heading of starting small. You can tell the story of what happened at work, what happened with a customer. Relax with the story and see where it leads you.
A good presentation on how to tell stories in business can be found on slideshare: The essentials of business storytelling by Shawn Callaghan. His advice:
- Make a point
- Tell a story illustrating that point
- Give your reasons
- Reiterate your point
Improving our storytelling
I loved this piece a while back on hbr: Storytelling That Moves People by Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer
What makes a good story?
You emphatically do not want to tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.
For example, let’s imagine the story of a biotech start-up we’ll call Chemcorp, whose CEO has to persuade some Wall Street bankers to invest in the company. He could tell them that Chemcorp has discovered a chemical compound that prevents heart attacks and offer up a lot of slides showing them the size of the market, the business plan, the organizational chart, and so on. The bankers would nod politely and stifle yawns while thinking of all the other companies better positioned in Chemcorp’s market.
Alternatively, the CEO could turn his pitch into a story, beginning with someone close to him—say, his father—who died of a heart attack. So nature itself is the first antagonist that the CEO-as-protagonist must overcome. The story might unfold like this: In his grief, he realizes that if there had been some chemical indication of heart disease, his father’s death could have been prevented. His company discovers a protein that’s present in the blood just before heart attacks and develops an easy-to-administer, low-cost test.
But now it faces a new antagonist: the FDA. The approval process is fraught with risks and dangers. The FDA turns down the first application, but new research reveals that the test performs even better than anyone had expected, so the agency approves a second application. Meanwhile, Chemcorp is running out of money, and a key partner drops out and goes off to start his own company. Now Chemcorp is in a fight-to-the-finish patent race.
This accumulation of antagonists creates great suspense. The protagonist has raised the idea in the bankers’ heads that the story might not have a happy ending. By now, he has them on the edges of their seats, and he says, “We won the race, we got the patent, we’re poised to go public and save a quarter-million lives a year.” And the bankers just throw money at him.
A final word of caution, though. Just because your storytelling skills aren’t red hot, doesn’t mean that your competitors aren’t! Even the most logical person when confronted with an emotionally ridden story will become engaged. This can lead to you buying products that you didn’t really need, or in the business case, your customers being swayed to your competition because they tell the better advertising story. The time to start telling stories is now!