Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Introduction

Forget about PowerPoint and statistics. To involve people at the highest level, you need stories.

Bronwyn Fryer, Senior Editor, The Harvard Business Review, June 2003

Why use story and narrative in the business environment?

An interpretation of a recent research paper by a renowned US academic concluded that business narratives and stories, told in the service of effective persuasion and influence, accounted for some 14 per cent of US GNP, or to put it another way... over one trillion US dollars!

Why are stories so powerful and effective?

First of all, they are the common currency of communication. Successful communicators and leaders tell them to make sense of their own lives and experience, and to pass on their knowledge, beliefs and values to others in a wise and conversational manner.

In addition, stories are contextual. They are embedded in situations and relationships that impact immediately on the lived experience of the listeners. Consequently, they are much more motivating, empowering and memorable than mere facts. At their best, they offer real systemic explanations or insights into what can appear to be knotty or intractable problems. They look at dynamic inter-relationships, not static events.

What’s more

  • Stories naturally incorporate the multi-sensory, experiential qualities of life as it’s actually lived
  • They easily connect with the various ways in which different people make meaning
  • They naturally integrate both logic and emotion
  • They weave together past, present, and future
  • They allow us to look at life from different perspectives, offering a wider, more systemic vision than we had before.

Last, stories and business narratives can be used in formal and non-formal contexts. Whether in a conference presentation to hundreds of people, an informal seminar, a team meeting, or an intimate one to one, a well-timed, well-constructed, well-told story can achieve in moments what more directive methods may take much longer to deliver.

Example

Many successful organisations and teams suffer from complacency and – worst of all – are in complete denial about it. How do you get them to recognise this? Remind them of the parable of the boiled frog. Put a frog into boiling water and it will hop out PDQ. But put that frog into pleasantly warm water; don’t frighten it, and it will feel nice and relaxed. Turn up the heat very gently and, far from feeling anxious, that old frog will lay back with a smile on its face and think the world is just perfect. The frog will become increasingly dazed and by the time the water is back to 80 degrees the frog will be well past doing anything about it even though nothing is stopping it. The frog’s neurological mechanism is only attuned to noticing danger as swift and sudden changes in its environment, not as a slow and gradual process. You may be successful today, but WAKE UP NOW to what is happening around you.

Stories: the jewel in the crown

Stories stick in the memory and get re-told. Carefully constructed analyses, no matter how well put together, too often fly straight over the heads of the audience, or simply fail to excite and motivate. The ability to tell an insightful and appropriate story is one of the most prized catalysts in the chemistry of the excellent communicator, a jewel in the crown of the wisest leaders and managers.

Everyone knows the basics of storytelling. The following pages offer guidance on how to make business stories work for you in a variety of contexts and relationships.

There is a world of difference between telling a story for its own sake and telling a story to achieve a particular outcome with a particular set of individuals. You will need to be clear about what you want, who the audience are, what they need, how they need to hear it, and how to deliver your story with power and precision so that they respond in the way you wish.