The power of storytelling: Weaving narratives that inspire employees and engage customers

Storytelling

If you were afraid to enter the water after watching the 1975 film Jaws, you know a good story can captivate an audience, make messages stick and influence behaviour.

Once the domain of filmmakers and artists, storytelling has been adapted by businesses including the National Australia Bank (which now includes storytelling as a core capability for senior executives), Fuji Xerox, BHP Billiton and Cadbury Schweppes to help managers inspire, engage and lead more effectively.

At select global consulting firms, new employees are even trained in business storytelling as part of university graduate programs.

Why tell stories?

Adelaide-based independent management consultant Susan Raphael uses storytelling to help her clients maximise productivity, increase employee engagement and achieve organisational objectives and goals.

“Stories are a powerful method of challenging perceptions, reshaping beliefs and influencing people to behave differently,” she says.

“Storytelling is hardwired into us as human beings. A good story adds depth, meaning and helps your message to sink in. Leaders can use this to their advantage to embed culture and vision.”

She says storytelling helps managers, executives and marketers to build relationships, connect people to the bigger picture and cut through jargon.

Mark Schlenk, managing director at Australian storytelling and strategy firm Anecdote, agrees. He adds that storytelling can overcome entrenched views and make it easier to convey clear and memorable messages.

“Managers tend to communicate in a way that is abstract. They talk in vague terms about things like employee engagement, or how to be more approachable, but no one knows what those terms actually mean. The number one enemy of effective communication is ambiguity,” Schlenk says.

“Stories, on the other hand, are concrete. They can help managers [and marketers] have a huge impact.”

Choose your stories

Raphael says business storytelling also plays a key role in creating and strengthening an organisation’s identity.

“Choose positive and powerful stories. You need to have your antenna up and be on the lookout for stories that highlight your successes,” she says.

How can marketers start using storytelling?

According to Schlenk, the fastest way to become a better storyteller is to use examples to clarify meaning. Rather than a manager telling employees that they need to improve their customer service, for example, it may be more effective to say:

“Our customer service needs work. I saw a great example of how we should be treating our customers yesterday when I was walking through the car park and I noticed that Gary had taken time out of his lunch break to help an elderly customer with her shopping bags. We should be more like Gary.”

Schlenk says stories are characterised by time markers, characters (generally people, but occasionally an organisation or team), specific events and the unexpected.

“A story is a promise. You know when you’re telling a story because people want you to finish,” Schlenk says.

“Tell stories to be believed. If you make an assertion, fewer than half of the people in the room will believe you. If you say, ‘I know we had redundancies last year, but even though things are tough there will be no redundancies this quarter’, nobody will believe you.

"But take that assertion and turn it into a story about how you’ve met with the management team and identified what went wrong last year, and share the steps you’re taking to avoid redundancies, and that’s much more effective.”

He warns that in a business context, it is never appropriate to make up stories, refer to fairytales or start with “Once upon a time”.

“You can’t afford to be fluffy or to tell fairytales in a business context. Never say, ‘Let me tell you a story’. That is associated with fairytales and kids, and you risk negative bias because of that. Why give yourself that handicap?” he says.

“Authenticity is also vital. Don’t put on a storytelling voice, and don’t practise gestures, which can look fake.”

Schlenk also recommends practising telling stories out loud to develop compelling anecdotes.

“Say a story out loud twice and you will remember it. Get in the habit of noticing stories and you will soon have hundreds to share.”

Learn from the best

Marketers should look to emulate the storytelling techniques of Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and former Queensland premier Anna Bligh.

While each of these business leaders is (or was) a master storyteller, Schlenk says Bligh’s “love for concrete language” is particularly noteworthy.

“During Cyclone Yasi, which hit Queensland in 2011, Bligh’s advisers would come up to her before press conferences and say things like, ‘OK, Premier. There’s a category five storm anticipated to make landfall in eight hours’. Her response would be, ‘So you mean there’s a deadly storm coming?’ She cut through the ambiguity with powerful, concrete terms, which is vital for telling strong stories.”

This article first appeared in Management Today, the former flagship publication of the Australian Institute of Management. If you need help utilising storytelling and creating engaging content, contact Mint Content for a free 15-minute consultation today