Yet we all still love stories. We read novels, watch movies, attend plays, and share stories over the dinner table because these intersect in a special way with our humanity. We can relate, we can feel, we can empathize through the power of story. Societies and organizations owe much to storytelling. Through stories we reinforce core values, pass down traditions, and convey a sense of connectedness with others in the community.
Not surprisingly, we are increasingly learning about the power of story in business. Stories can help you build your firm's brand, sell your services, enhance employee engagement, and change corporate culture. Stories are one of your best persuasive tools because they engage people emotionally and relationally. That's why storytelling is emerging as a key leadership skill.
So in the business world, what is a story? Consultant Kaihan Krippendorf describes a classic five-point "story spine" that usually forms the structure of both timeless fairy tales and compelling business narratives: (1) reality introduced, (2) conflict introduced, (3) struggle, (4) conflict resolved, (5) new reality. Doesn't that capture the essence of the typical success stories that we love?
In the article "How Storytelling Builds Next Generation Leaders" published in MIT Sloan Management Review, author Douglas Ready outlines five components of effective stories used in leading others:
- Context-specific. The story obviously should be directly relevant to the issue at hand.
- Level-appropriate. The story should resonate with your audience, germane to their rank and role within the firm.
- Told by respected role models. Any story intended to help effect change is most effective when the storyteller is credible.
- Have drama. Conflict or tension always enhances a story. This doesn't necessarily imply conflict between people, but more often between facing a problem and applying the solution.
- Have high learning value. A good story in this context is one that illustrates the actions and attitudes that are desired.
Don't just tell, illustrate through a story. Of course, it's easier—especially if you're the boss—to just tell people what to do. But that's not nearly as productive as inspiring them to do what you want. A story can motivate far better than policy, procedure, or directive. I often use stories in training, either positive ones (this firm did this and look at the success they achieved) or negative ones (this firm didn't do this and look at the trouble they got into).
Stories are an excellent way to ingrain core values and purpose within an organization. Describe what these look like in action. Stories make them real, tangible, accessible. That's why storytelling is so critical to culture change initiatives.
Share internal success stories. Employees often respond best to stories of what their colleagues have accomplished, because the narrative is perceived as more relevant and credible. Be sure to capture and share those stories as much as possible, and celebrate successes. At the next tier, stories within your industry can be more readily received than those outside your industry (where people can question the relevancy).
Engage the heart. We are most impacted by the stories that move us, that prompt an emotional response. This is an element often missing in our communication in this business, as we tend to favor dry data and facts. But persuasion marries information and emotion, with the latter driving the decision making process. Why? Because it's human. Stories are effective because of they're personal and relatable.
So don't just talk about actions or milestones or metrics. Talk about people, what they thought and felt, what happened to them, how they responded, and what they accomplished. Focus on human solutions, not just technical ones, because the former is much more valued (and persuasive) than the latter.
Make your audience the vicarious protagonist whenever possible. Who doesn't enjoy stories where you can identify with (or perhaps imagine being) the hero or leading character of the drama? A common mistake we make using stories is to make ourselves the protagonist. Of course, that may simply reflect the true facts of the story you share. But even if you're the key character of the story, you want to try to tell it in a way that others can project themselves in that central role.
How? Relate the story specifically to your audience: "I was in the same predicament as you are..." "You remember what it's like working with this client..." "This company is very similar to yours..." Statements like these help your audience envision themselves in the story you're telling. That's what gives story its power to affect people and change organizations.
Tell clients about their peers, not your firm. Similar to the point above, the stories you use to persuade prospective and existing clients are more effective when the client can directly relate to the protagonist. We often share "case histories" that prominently feature our firm. But a better approach is to put the client that was in the story front and center: "Our client was facing the same problem and here's what they did..." Of course, it's evident that your firm had a critical role in the story. But it's a better story to share with clients if another client is the focus.
Share stories with passion. If the power of story is the life it brings to the facts, you certainly don't want to tell it in a lifeless manner. This is true whether the telling is oral or written. Bring stories to life by sharing them with enthusiasm and passion. If you seem disinterested, your audience is likely to tune you out even if the story at its core is compelling. Infuse feelings into the narrative. Engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. Of course, be sure your stories always feature the people in them.
Would you like to become a better storyteller? Listen and learn from those who excel at it. Collect stories that can be useful for your business purposes. Draw from your own experiences and practice sharing these in a way that engages your audience. Be deliberate in inserting stories into your communications until it becomes more natural. Pay attention to how your audience responds so you can learn what works and what doesn't.
For more insight on this topic, you might find the following video by presentation guru Nancy Duarte helpful (by the way, YouTube can be a great place to listen to great storytellers):