This useful book explains why storytelling is important in the world of business, what kinds of stories can be crafted, and how to use them effectively on a regular basis.
Types, tools and techniques of the craft are well explained in the new book, Stories at Work: Unlock the Secret to Business Storytelling by Indranil Chakraborty. Storytelling is being increasingly acknowledged as a powerful tool for driving organisational culture, particularly in an era of information overload.
See also my reviews of the related books Let the Story Do the Work (Esther Choy), The Storyteller’s Secret (Carmine Gallo), Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (Annette Simmons), and First-Time Leader (George Bradt and Gillian Davis).
Founders launching their startup journeys should certainly begin with YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas as a visualisation tool for their entrepreneurial journey. At growth and scale stage, and for managers in large organisations, the book Stories at Work provides useful frameworks and examples.
The book spans 19 chapters and 220 pages, along with six pages of references. Cited books include Story Proof and Story Smarts (by Kendall Haven); Acts of Meaning (Jerome Bruner); Stories, Scripts and Scenes (Jean Mandler); Start with Why (Simon Sinek); The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (Stephen Denning); Good Thinking (Denise Cummins); Lost Knowledge (David DeLong); Resonate (Nancy Duarte); The Confidence Game (Maria Konnikova); and Talent is Overrated (Geoff Colvin).
Indranil spent two decades in firms like Unilever, Tata Group and Mahindra, and caught the storytelling bug after attending an inspiring workshop by Shawn Callahan (Founder) and Mark Schenk (partner) of Australian company Anecdote. He started his own firm, StoryWorks, to help organisations harness the power of storytelling.
“A story is a fact wrapped in context and delivered with emotion,” Indranil defines, with regard to business storytelling. Stories assist in verbalisation, visualisation and discussion of key messages. In the business context, stories can connect, engage, align and inspire.
1. The importance of stories
“Stories have the power to charm and influence and even change behaviour. It is stories that turn products into brands,” explains marketing guru Piyush Pandey in the foreword. Many advertising campaigns have been built on stories and true incidents, such as his mother’s opinion questioning the value of diamonds (SBI Life Insurance).
Stories come not just from creative minds but fans, customers and consumers. Stories are encouraged in childhood and become entertainment in adulthood – but are not taken seriously enough in the business world, and are even regarded as cooked-up fiction.
“Whether it is to evangelise a culture within an organisation (for a CEO), understand an employee’s views about the brand (for HR), or interpret the consumers and customers, storytelling can be an effective tool,” Piyush explains.
“Storytelling is a craft learnt through imitation and practice. Just like good writers are good readers, good storytellers are great story-listeners,” explains Anecdote founder Shawn Callahan in the prologue. “After all, the expert was a beginner once,” he adds.
When company values are merely listed on a boardroom plaque, very few people tend to remember what the values are, what they mean, and how they are reflected in daily behaviour. It is storytelling that helps leaders connect, align and inspire teams.
Authentic stories are credible and absorbing; they build rapport, inspire action, explain complex messages, contextualise data, and spread messages through viral re-telling. The use of plain language makes them simple, direct and efficient. The “narrative transportation” of a story builds on its emotional connection.
2. Story types and impacts
A story has a time or place marker, sequence of events, people’s names, an element of surprise, and a relevance statement. Indranil classifies business stories into four types: connection, influence, clarity and success stories.
A connection story forms bonds with listeners through an incident in the narrator’s life, which showcases his or her character, values and beliefs. These could highlight successes, failures, pride, turning points, or passions. For example, Michael Dell’s story about how he funded his childhood hobby of collecting stamps helps promote his entrepreneurial flair.
An influence story changes opinions and overcomes objections. Listeners with preconceived notions are not easily swayed by hard facts, compelling arguments, glitzy presentations or impassioned speeches.
Instead, the listener’s “anti-story” must be discovered, acknowledged and tackled. The influence narrative then shares a story with the opposite point of view, makes a case for the new perspective, and gives a call to action. An influence story doesn’t push data at the listener; it lets the listener pull the new meaning into their own worldview by seeding doubts about the old worldview and becoming open to alternate realities.
A clarity story has four components: past context and results; a change and its impacts; new responsive behaviours needed; and future actions and success factors. It helps a leader get a new strategy to stick. Examples include Steve Jobs pitching the iCloud after the earlier failure of MobileMe.
A success story overcomes the problems of case studies that come across as boring, formulaic and full of jargon, claims and oversell. Instead, it introduces the emotions that specific characters felt before and after problem resolution, eg. how they went from frustration and anxiety to relief and excitement after successful product implementation. The story structure can make it easier for case studies to be remembered and even retold.
The craft of storytelling requires effective skills in story-listening: conversation and interviewing techniques to get others to tell their own stories organically, eg. based on incidents, emotions, achievement and impact.
Anecdote circles are group discussions designed to elicit stories from others, through skilful facilitation. These days, it has become easy to capture such stories in audio or video form through smartphones.
Other related activities in the organisational context are story triggering, where your behaviour, actions and incidents can lead others to craft stories about you.
3. Stories in action
All the above contexts and foundations come together in Part III of the book; I have summarised some of these story applications in Table 1 below. For example, companies can create story processes to collect thematic stories at regular intervals via storylistening.
Ritz-Carlton holds meetings to collect “wow” stories of outstanding customer service from its hotel employees thrice a week. Staff members discuss these stories and their impacts, and the top ten stories are collected each year.
Collection of stories via story-listening at multiple levels helped evaluation of an NGO project in Bangladesh. The NGO staff, beneficiaries and donors each had different views on what needed to be measured. Stories of change were collected from multiple stakeholders to improve sense-making and impact assessment.
NASA uses storytelling as a primary vehicle for transferring project management expertise. Story-listening for knowledge management is used to extract insights on problems, failures, lessons and recommendations.
Listening to customers requires an open and curious mind, and not just to validate pre-existing hypotheses. Story-listening in the customer context helps uncover new meanings, interpretations of value, and new patterns. Collectively, these yield useful business insights.
In change management, the clarity story sets the direction, and tackling anti-stories quells naysayers. Success stories provide evidence of progress along with a sense of momentum and motivation, and create peer pressure for others to follow.
Apple retail stores end each day with a discussion on Net Promoter Scores of the employees. Top scorers get applause and share detailed stories of what happened in their customer interactions.
In sales, all four types of stories can be used. It is also important to co-create the final part of the clarity story with the customer, eg. how both companies can work together once the deal is signed. This makes the final story belong as much to the customer as to the client.
Speeches and presentations should not rely only on slides. They can use story structures and rhetorical elements such as ‘imagine’ or ‘what if’ scenarios, and a call to action. Elements of suspense, contrasts, and failed attempts can also add excitement before the final resolution.
Story structures can enhance presentations based on data analytics by highlighting surprising changes over time, contrasts, intersections/crossovers, and outliers, factors, drilling down, and zooming in/out. For example, the West Indies’ cricket performance has decreased due to a combination of complacency, alternative sports like basketball, and lack of cohesion across member states.
4. Storytelling habits and culture
Indranil advises readers to develop a regular habit of cataloguing stories: identifying key facts in stories encountered, creating tags for the subjects and usage contexts, and storing them as a story bank in applications like Evernote. “It will be nothing short of collecting gold dust,” he jokes.
Story banks can be built from one’s own stories, stories heard or elicited from others, and from business books. Recording and repeatedly hearing one’s own stories helps pick up flaws; testing the stories on small groups of listeners, watching their reactions, and asking for feedback also helps (particularly when addressing new cultural groups).
Coaches can plan an important role here. Building a repertoire of diverse stories, or different versions of the same story, also helps avoid the impression that you have only one story to tell.
Authenticity in a story arises from passion, perseverance, experience, and confidence to admit mistakes. Exaggeration and fictitious events should be avoided, as well as omission of critical details that may mislead or even manipulate audiences.
Subsequent behaviour should also match the message of the story, otherwise the storyteller will be dismissed as untruthful. The author identifies other ethical practices for leaders, such as respecting confidentiality, and telling multiple sides of the story for complex issues.
Companies should invest in building storytelling capabilities, linking storytelling to key business issues, and creating a process of continuous story sharing and collection. Becoming an outstanding storyteller calls for focus on specific impact areas, regular time commitments, planning of occasions when it will be used, and types of stories to be developed.
“Practice doesn’t make you perfect. Only perfect practice makes you perfect. Quality of practice is just as important as the quantity,” Indranil signs off.