September 24, 2021 / Esther Choy
“No tribal chief or elder has ever handed out statistical reports, charts, graphs, or lists to explain where the group is headed or what it must do.” As management consultant and author Peg Neuhauser has emphasized, it’s the stories we tell that allow us to effectively lead and inspire others. Stories create our realities, preserve the past, and shape the future. In our families, workplaces, cities, and nations—even in our individual lives—narrative helps us understand our direction, our purpose, and our values.
Business storytelling has been growing in popularity and reputation as an organizational strategy, but its impact is still vastly underrated until it’s experienced firsthand. This may be because storytelling seems so simple. And guess what? It is simple! But simple does not mean easy.
Effective storytelling takes training and practice in how to decide which stories to tell, how to build a narrative that will connect with your audience, when to tell these stories, and when NOT to tell stories. Once mastered, these skills are capable of some staggering benefits to your organization and your brand. It’s a broad but powerful skill set that can be applied in management, marketing, data analysis, decision-making, change management… The list goes on. One of our clients used storytelling in recruitment, seeing a 20% increase in new hire conversions—their highest ever. Another used the lessons in my book to write a script for a multiple award-winning documentary—The Need for Connectivity—that supports the work of his conservation foundation.
Storytelling principles and tools can be used and taught within organizations to tap into exciting potential across all levels of employees, in all departments. Once you have created a storytelling culture, your organization will never be the same. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Elevate and leverage purpose.
In the last ten years, various studies and polls (including Gallup) have demonstrated that Millennial workers—now in their mid-20s to around age 40—deeply value purpose in their work. LinkedIn and Imperative found that workers further along in their careers value purpose even more, having covered the basics of making their desired salaries and gaining promotions.
Gallup’s Culture and Change Subject Matter Expert, Jake Herway, recently wrote that “Without the emotional connection to the work that comes from a personal purpose, the reality of an engaged corporate culture of ownership and shared responsibility never materializes.” Further, “Gallup research shows that just a 10% improvement in employees’ connection with the mission or purpose of their organization leads to an 8.1% decrease in turnover and a 4.4% increase in profitability.”
An organization’s mission, vision, and values really matter, but they cannot make a difference if they are not articulated well and don’t integrate with daily work activities. Storytelling culture allows a company to use that identity to both guide and connect with the employees that further its growth and success.
Bonus for family enterprises: your company’s story is foundational to its future. Long after you pass on the helm, story is what preserves culture and grounds growth. We witnessed this when a family business client, ATI Restoration, worked with us to record their company’s story, and in the process, had their employees trained to look closely at the trajectory of the business, the critical decisions, and the deeply bonding moments. Through this exercise, we helped them construct a strong organizational narrative that will drive this family business as the next generation emerges as its leaders.
2. Guide united, cohesive action.
Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson said that “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” Business storytelling teaches leadership in different functions of an organization to communicate their specialized knowledge clearly.
How can this shape your organization? First, this prevents silos which can hinder growth at best and weaken a company at worst. As authors for the Harvard Business Review pointed out, fighting a siloed culture requires horizontal communication, empathy, culture brokers, and lots of curious questions—all of which are trained, nurtured, and deployed in storytelling culture. (We train this regularly.)
Secondly, communicating specialized knowledge by means of a story helps preserve accuracy. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to preserve an accurate picture of collected data is not to simply present it without interpretation, hoping that leadership at higher and higher levels will still “get it” and then make an informed decision about it. No: a data story which can be retold will most reliably bring data to decision-makers who can then take action based on knowledge.
The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” Skip the 80 slides and game of telephone; use a story to synthesize, interpret, and prove.
3. Create meaningful relationships.
Olivet Nazarene University conducted a survey of 3,000 American full-time employees to learn more about how we form friendships at work. According to their research, not only do most of us form friendships at work, but employees aged 40+ said they want more friends at work. We even discuss personal issues like health, finances, and romantic relationships with our coworkers.
Relationships among teammates are important. If a leader wants her team members to trust, invest in, and collaborate with each other well, they are well-served by getting to know one another. When we helped a client with offices all over Southeast Asia and Australia to build team relationships, the feedback included, “I have a new-found admiration for [my colleagues],” “By asking simple questions you can get to know someone really well and learn something very unexpected,” and, “I was able to structure [my story] in a way that is captivating and impactful.”
Storytelling culture gels a team. This team is best equipped to be productive, generous with one another, and capable of meeting more ambitious goals. Team building is vital, and storytelling is not only a great hack, but a long term habit that can be ingrained.
Business storytelling energizes every level of an organization. Intrigued? Do a little experiment. Incorporate a paired intro into your next meeting (especially if it’s virtual) and see the difference it makes in focus, rapport, and openness. If you like the level of engagement you see, we have much more to teach you.
Better Every Story
"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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