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By: Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk, Mike Adams, Paul Ichilcik
The Story-Powered Organisation
guide to corporate storytelling in 2021.
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What is corporate storytelling?
Corporate storytelling, also called business storytelling, is the purposeful and systematic application of story techniques in an organisation to deliver business outcomes.
Here’s a simple example. A large insurance company wants to ensure its strategy sticks. It wants its leaders to have the strategy in their heads so they can act strategically day in, day out. So the leaders work together to develop a story that explains their strategy; their strategy story. The very process of developing the story ensures that everyone owns what’s created. Then the top 150 leaders learn how to tell it orally—without notes, just in their own way, adding their own anecdotes—and they teach their direct reports how to tell it. Now they can all explain their strategy without having to fire up PowerPoint or refer to a plan-on-a-page document. Employee engagement soars because people feel confident their leaders know where they are heading, and that they’re all heading in the same direction.
There are many corporate storytelling techniques. Often, these involve leaders learning how to find and share stories to improve how they communicate with their people or those outside the business. But corporate storytelling is much more than that. For example, salespeople are now learning story skills to close more business faster. A company can use stories to define its brand or to communicate its strategy. Apple and The Ritz-Carlton share stories daily with their people to improve customer service. Stories are also used to share knowledge, to inspire action, and to change minds. We are seeing story techniques being used in just about every part of the enterprise.
There are also many ways in which companies apply these story techniques and they go beyond just story-telling. Companies are systematically finding stories using story-listening methods, and the very astute are discovering ways to trigger new stories by taking remarkable action that people will share stories about. Taken together, these stories define an organisation’s brand, illustrate its leaders’ collective character, and constitute its culture.
In this article, we list the most popular ways in which businesses are utilising story techniques. For each business topic, we describe the business problem companies are typically trying to solve, and how story initiatives work in this context. We also point to some resources so you can learn more.
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“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel. But there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
—Ursula Le Guin, novelist
The business problem
Leaders want and need to be heard, and it’s vital that what they say sinks in and makes sense. Ideally, what they say results in people taking action. Leaders need the ability to stand up and deliver their message (without notes) supported by examples (stories) that increase the message’s authenticity, meaningfulness, clarity, and memorability.
Here’s what can happen when a leader tells a story.
A large professional service firm in Hong Kong was transitioning to a new CEO, and for a while the outgoing CEO stayed on to help with the changeover—both executives served as joint-CEO for a few months. During this time, they had to present to a town hall meeting. The outgoing, experienced CEO stepped on stage and asked, “Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures?” Heads nodded. “It’s about a group of black American women in the 1960s working for NASA as human computers. They do the calculations, by hand, for the moonshots.”
The CEO continued: “Well, the head of the human-computer pool, Dorothy Vaughan, notices that a new IBM computer is being installed. She knows this is a threat, a disruptor, to their work, so she heads down to the city library and gets a book on the FORTRAN programming language and teaches herself how to program the IBM computer. Then she teaches the pool of human computers she supervises. They become the first programmers at NASA.”
The CEO then said, “So what’s our FORTRAN? How are we going to respond to the disruptors we are seeing in our industry?” They then continued their talk.
Next, it was the new CEO’s turn. He gave the standard presentation replete with slides of graphs and tables of utilisation rates, revenues and profits.
After the town hall meeting, the experienced CEO was inundated with people saying they’d met with their teams and had ideas on what their FORTRAN was. They were excited and keen to make a difference. The new CEO heard nothing from nobody.
Leaders seek out story skills when they lack inspiration, when briefings have become boring or tedious, or when they’re having trouble persuading their audiences. They also look to storytelling when they feel they are being too abstract or they’re waffling, not making their point clearly.
In addition to general leadership communication, there are specific scenarios that benefit from story techniques, such as making a strategy stick, delivering an effective pitch, and embedding values (these topics are discussed later in this article).
The typical solution
Companies often invest in training their leaders in storytelling. Because storytelling is a practice, not just content to be learned, it’s vital that the training is practice-based and is delivered over an extended period (2–6 months) so there is time for the leaders to apply what they learn, get feedback and try again.
Hybrid learning models are popular where there are face-to-face or virtual instructor–led components, online learning modules, smartphone-based practices and feedback activities, teleconferences and peer coaching. Here’s how we deliver our virtual version of Storytelling for Leaders.
Coaching is also effective. For a group of leaders, a combination of individual and group coaching sessions enables them to work on specific presentations and meetings they have in their schedules whilst also learning from their peers and learning how to coach each other.
‘In our old sales training workshops, we used to teach sellers to ask sequences of questions in a particular order. The goal was to diagnose the buyer’s problem with a bias towards the seller’s solution. In retrospect, it’s clear why that wasn’t effective for most sellers.’
—Mike Bosworth, author of Solution Selling and What Great Salespeople Do (with Ben Zoldan)
The business problem
Sales communication can be split into two basic categories. One is transactional sales, where the buyer needs only basic information such as price, features and benefits to make a buying decision. Transactional sales are increasingly the preserve of e-commerce and won’t be discussed further in this article.
The other category is complex sales, which require an in-depth conversation between buyer and seller for the purpose of problem-solving. The critical business issue with complex sales is that so few people are good at the problem-solving conversation. Studies show that, compared with transactional sales, the majority of salespeople fail to do well in complex sales situations.1
In fact, the major outcome of classic sales conversation training seems to be legions of salespeople who sound just like, well, salespeople—those spouting predictable salesy questions and phrases that make them sound insincere and turn their buyers off. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many top-performing salespeople are unaware of their skills or the reasons for their success, as can be seen in the following example.
In 2017, Matt, the founder and managing director of a successful commercial real estate business, became ill and was unable to keep working in his business. The sales results slipped alarmingly, which is when Matt asked for Anecdote’s help.
When we met Matt, the first thing we noticed was his stories—he’s one of those rare stream-of-consciousness storytellers. In short order, Matt told an hilarious story about his father and grandfather in the real estate business, then another about having been the top salesperson in an international real estate company before setting out on his own. And then, pointing to a building across the street, he told us a story about it!
Curious, we asked Matt whether his salespeople knew and could tell stories like the ones he’d just told. Matt reflected for a moment and then said, ‘No. They don’t tell stories.’
So we set about teaching Matt’s sales teams how to spot and tell stories. We helped them collect the best company stories and put them in a sales story bank. Now, Matt’s company is no longer reliant on him to close critical sales deals because his sales teams have learnt his storytelling skills and are able to leverage the company’s best stories.
The best sellers are storytellers because they understand that buying decisions are both rational and emotional, and that the best way to spark an emotion that leads to action is with a story.
The typical solution
Companies can invest in storytelling training programs and ongoing coaching for their sales teams. The programs cover the sales story frameworks and include group exercises for finding and telling connection stories to quickly build rapport, stories to sell change, and stories to help close a deal. Crucial also is learning the art of story listening, because complex problems are best understood with an exchange of buyer and seller stories.
A typical storytelling program involves virtual or face-to-face workshops with the team, followed up with individual coaching so that each salesperson becomes confident in finding and telling their own stories. Here’s how we deliver our virtual version of Story-Powered Sales.
For the storytelling program to stick, it’s important that stories are captured and stored in a sales team story bank for use by current and new salespeople.
Specialised coaching to help sales leaders become story coaches and incorporate story work in their routine team management is also often necessary.
1 Dixon, Matthew and Brent Adamson (2011). The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. Penguin. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Challenger-Sale-Control-Customer-Conversation/dp/0670922854
Strategy development and communication
‘A company without a story is usually a company without a strategy.’
—Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur and investor
The business problem
Companies spend a significant amount of time and money, often with large consulting firms, to develop their strategy, then mistakenly think they’ve passed the finish line when the strategy is complete. In fact, the race has just begun. Communicating and embedding the strategic choices become the big jobs that determine the success of any strategy. An effective strategy is in everyone’s heads so they can act strategically whenever they face a decision, big or small. A plan on a page or a strategy playbook is rarely remembered, whereas a story is naturally memorable and easily shared.
A good strategy is a meaningful explanation of what a company plans to do, its big bets, communicated in a way that helps everyone understand why the company has made its strategic choices. It should also paint a picture of the future that’s compelling, even inspiring. This type of communication is perfectly suited to a strategy story.
The typical solution
Strategy stories are often crafted by the executive team, yet their power comes from engaging a wider group of leaders in the story creation process. The more leaders are involved, the more people who own the strategy story.
Once the strategy story is crafted, leaders need to learn how to tell it off the cuff, without notes, and by adding their own personal anecdotes.
Now that your leaders can tell the strategy story, it’s important to find opportunities to tell it. Asking leaders to weave the story into any pitch for resources or new initiatives ensures the strategy always sets the context for decision-making.
So far we have only discussed top-down initiatives. It’s important to also find stories of the strategy already happening, which illustrates progress.2 We are highly motivated by progress. These stories should be shared widely and talked about, because if you want to change a culture, you need new stories to be told.
2 Amabile, Teresa and Steven Kramer (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press. https://www.amazon.com.au/Progress-Principle-Ignite-Engagement-Creativity-ebook/dp/B0054KBLBI
Presentations and keynotes
‘According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’
—Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian
The business problem
Most business presentations are dry and boring, and as a result totally forgettable. The mistaken assumption is that clear points organised in a rational way and spoken out loud or placed into a fancy PowerPoint template can pass as an effective business presentation. Left-brain efficiency may rule the way we operate in business processes, but it shouldn’t rule the way we communicate.
The typical solution
Storytelling is a tool that can overcome this common pitfall. A series of well-placed anecdotes pulls the audience into a journey and turns dry logic into interesting context. It also helps a presenter connect with the audience at a personal level.
Story pulls the audience into a journey
In 2018, while working for Amazon Web Services, we helped an executive—let’s call her Kylie—prepare a presentation for 10,000 people in Las Vegas. Kylie had led a digital transformation in her emerging nation, focused on eight pillars. She now planned to share all eight, in detail. But this would have made for a boring presentation, with no sense of movement. Instead, we found a journey in the way Kylie’s team tackled her nation’s connectivity challenges, which had stunted medical access, education, and growth. This created an urgency to shift her team’s role from being operational to become leaders of the connectivity drive. Her team was cast as the character facing many ups and downs on the journey but eventually triumphing.
Delivering a list of bullets in a rational structure is akin to force-feeding the audience and expecting them to rapidly digest the entire meal. Story, on the other hand, offers more space, whereby the audience can make their own connections, visualisations, and conclusions.
Story takes the audience on a journey from one state to another, with ups and downs that hold their attention. Contrasting the current state and future potential creates tension. But a good presentation will go further, continuing to raise and collapse audience expectations. This may be through the unfolding journey of a leader, an employee, a customer or a combination of these, but the crucial point is that overcoming hurdles, leading to some kind of transformation, holds our interest.
Story puts dry presentations into compelling context
Presentations are full of assertions and opinions, which may be backed up with facts. Story, however, allows the presenter to wrap facts in context and deliver them with emotion—small anecdotes can have a big impact.
For example, Kylie described how the transformation made her team more strategic. On its own that’s a rather bland assertion, but she tied it to a small anecdote, recounting the first time she was called into a board meeting. The company’s president had relied on Kylie’s IT perspective to make a crucial decision, when before IT barely had a voice. Using this small anecdote, Kylie gave credibility and meaning to her assertion.
You can also use a story structure to make the ‘why’ behind a call to action more compelling. It helps create an imperative to overcome inertia. For example, to explain a restructure you may share the story of sceptical employee who resists change but soon sees their customers leaving in droves. This leads them (and the audience) to not only hear the reasons for the restructure but to feel the urgency for it.
Story makes a presentation personal and relatable
Story gives the audience a feel for what’s at stake. Most presentations remain in organisational or task-driven realms, but story allows the presenter to bring in a more human perspective. As we relate to other people, we’re more likely to care about the outcome than we would for a generic corporation. In fact, the more specific you can get—introducing dialogue, characters, times, and places—the better the story will resonate.
And it’s not only the presenter who uses story. The audience can start to identify their own roles within a narrative or in relation to an anecdote. They can start to see how their work or innovations can advance a story.
Effective presenters also use story to share why they personally care about something. We call this a connection story. For example, every leader says people are the most important factor in their organisation. That’s a motherhood statement until the speaker provides a specific story showing why they hold that belief or what action they are taking in relation to that assertion. More important than being a dynamic speaker or crafting beautiful slides is the underlying story. Kylie was a very quiet presenter; yet, she was able to hold the attention of a large audience because she had a compelling personal story.
So the next time you have a list of facts or set of initiatives to share with your teams, try and find some stories that gives them flavour and wrap them in tangible or personal examples.
‘The ability to take data—to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualise it, to COMMUNICATE IT—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.’
—Dr Hal R. Varian, Google Chief Economist
The business problem
Before 2010, you hardly ever came across the term ‘data storytelling’. Now it’s everywhere. What happened?
The idea of data dashboards was introduced in the 1970s, but they didn’t take off until the 1990s when data warehouses became part of the enterprise technology suite. And with that new pool of management data, leaders wanted ways of seeing what was happening in their business.
There was an information explosion, and dashboards became—and still are—useful for exploring if something interesting was happening in the data. But decision-makers also wanted ways of explaining what was happening and what might happen next. They wanted business insights communicated in a meaningful way, and it would be even better if their>
Step 2: Identify and assemble the decision-makers who need to know what really happened as a result of the initiative
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This step, which is crucial to the success of the evaluation, consists of the evaluation designers asking the question, ‘Who needs to know, in their gut, the impact this initiative is having?’ These decision-makers could be at any level in the organisation, in any location. The evaluation designer organises the decision-makers into groups of 6-8 people and arranges for these groups to meet for 90 minutes or so to consider the significant change stories collected in Step 1.
Step 3: Select the Most Significant Change story
When you have your decision-makers in a room, the facilitator guides the group in a discussion of 4-6 of the stories that were selected. In fact, we encourage the group to read each story, then argue why they think a particular story is the most significant. This discussion helps embed the stories in the minds of the participants while raising issues of strategies and implementation. The participants experience a lively debate and get to know one another and the issues affecting people in the field. Most importantly, they develop an intuitive understanding of the impact the initiative is having.
At the end of the session, the group agrees on an MSC story and describes why they selected it. They also identify the actions they will take to reinforce the good things that are happening and disrupt the undesirable outcomes. The result is communicated to the original storytellers. The MSC story from each group is then made available to the next level in the organisation, such as an executive group, which repeats the process with the subset of stories.
Step 4: Make the stories and what was selected available
The evaluation concludes with the collation of all the stories and the creation of a document that details which stories were selected and why. Invariably, lessons are learned during the process and these ideas can then be fed into a continuous improvement process.
The selection process is frequently scheduled to occur on a regular cycle. Organisations that use MSC often select a period between selections of 3–6 months to evaluate ongoing change.
4 Klein, Gary (2003). Intuition at Work. Currency Doubleday. https://www.amazon.com.au/Intuition-Work-Developing-Instincts-Better/dp/0385502885
Businesses don’t invest in story capabilities as an end in itself. Instead, effective business story techniques tackle business problems. The topics we explored above are just the start. Stories are being used in software development, executive coaching, therapy, and every type of learning effort, let alone what’s happening in the entertainment business. We must, however, never forget that we don’t get any of the marvellous benefits of storytelling unless we are actually telling a story. It all starts with being able to tell the difference between a story and everything else. We call that story spotting. It’s the foundation skill.
A vast array of businesses already invest in story techniques. And many have developed capabilities across the areas we described. They are becoming story-powered organisations where humanity is front-and-centre offering a new competitive advantage: one where there is meaning; one where there is progress; one where people truly care.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
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Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk, Mike Adams, and Paul Ichilcik are the principals of Anecdote International and together have delivered all of the corporate storytelling initiatives described above. They are best-selling authors, expert facilitators and world-leading thought leaders on corporate storytelling. You can contact them at www.anecdote.com.