Storytelling is a powerful narrative tool to influence a range of audiences and can be an effective supplement to presentations and data analysis. This expert tells you how.
Rob Biesenbach is the author of Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results (see my book review here). The book covers company origin stories, the use of stories during presentations, and personal brand stories.
Rob is a corporate communications consultant, and the author of books Act Like You Mean Business and 11 Deadly Presentation Sins. His clients have included AC Nielsen, Mars, MillerCoors, Motorola, Allstate, Deloitte and Lockheed Martin. Rob is a former vice president at Ogilvy PR Worldwide and has served in government as well.
Rob joins us in this chat on storytelling tactics during startup pitches, impacts of stories, the habits and achievements of successful storytellers, and the role of digital media.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
YourStory: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company? How can storytelling help in the different stages of the journey?
Rob Biesenbach: Entrepreneurs are often driven by a fervent belief in what they are doing, which is important, of course. But that passion can also mean they lose their objectivity. They know so much about their company, product, or service that they find it difficult to distinguish the truly necessary information from the merely interesting.
That’s where storytelling comes in. By framing your idea or business in a narrative, you learn to keep the content tight and audience-focused. And that’s critical when pitching to investors, prospects, and recruits.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’? How should their story reflect the ups and downs of the journey?
RB: Change is all about conflict, and conflict is an essential ingredient for any story. A story where everything goes according to plan isn’t really a story. So revealing some of the ups and downs in the journey can be compelling.
But again, it’s important to focus. A story should not be a catalogue of every single twist and turn in the process, but only those essential to the narrative.
YS: What is your current field of research in storytelling?
RB: I state pretty clearly in the introduction of the book that I am not an academic. And that, I think, is part of what makes the book so readable. Other than where I cite some of the neuroscientific evidence behind the power of storytelling, it’s not dense with scholarly footnotes.
I stay current on the topic by reading whatever I can from other experts. Mostly, though, I learn through the consulting and workshops I do. That gives me an understanding of the challenges people face in telling stories, and I’m able to collect more real-life examples of successful storytelling.
YS: How big a role do academics play in storytelling? Can storytelling really be formally taught?
RB: Absolutely, storytelling can be taught. My book aims to simplify and demystify storytelling. In terms of simplicity, I’ve seen storytelling processes with as many as 19 steps! That’s unnecessarily complicated, especially for busy professionals. I break it down to its essential components.
As for the “mystery” of storytelling, I believe that with the right tools and structure anyone can learn to tell a good story. Too many business people psych themselves out. They watch TED Talks and think they have to tell the kind of stories that send people into fits of laughter or tears.
But not every story has to have that level of impact. Often it’s enough to simply trigger an acknowledgement of a shared perspective (“I’ve been there”) or a glimmer of understanding (“I know what you mean”). That helps lay the foundation for a relationship, a sale, or whatever your goal might be.
YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples of storytelling you have come across?
RB: The beauty of storytelling is that there are so many ways to come at it, and one of the most rewarding aspects of my work is seeing people craft and deliver their own stories. They draw on their personal experience or movies they’ve seen, they inject humour and surprise, they use elaborate physical gestures to amplify their message and more.
One participant started telling a story about a giant and I thought, “We really should be focusing on business stories here, not fables.” But then she revealed that the giant is Amazon! It was an allegory designed to communicate a key threat to her business to others in her organisation. Stories that go in an unexpected direction can be especially captivating.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
RB: I was delighted that in its first year it exceeded sales for my first two books combined. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a better book — it just seems that the topic of storytelling is of high interest to a lot of people.
One unusual response was from a colleague who seemed surprised that the book offers a detailed, step-by-step process for storytelling — implying that I was giving away all my secrets. By contrast, I read customer reviews of another book expressing disappointment that it was short on detail and seemingly designed to “upsell” readers on premium products.
I prefer my approach. The whole point is to help people fuel their success through storytelling.
YS: Most of the case studies in your book feature big companies; can you cite some examples of effective storytelling by startups and entrepreneurs? How about storytelling in government?
RB: I live in a 100-year-old home, so we are constantly bringing in contractors for repairs and projects. I do my due diligence — checking out reviews, getting recommendations, gathering the data, etc.
But what often drives my final decision is how they present themselves on their website. Do they have an interesting story that is well told and presents an authentic face to customers? Like a family-owned business with a long history in the community, for instance.
It may sound like a crazy way to pick a roofer or electrician, but all other things being equal, I go with the company with a good story. It helps create trust and confidence.
In terms of government, I tell a story in the book about the National Park Service in the US, which told a poignant story about the death of a hiker to warn people about the very real threats they may face in the wilderness. It had far more impact than your typical list of “dos and don’ts.”
YS: Who are some of the storytellers you admire the most today, and why?
RB: Malcolm Gladwell is a great storyteller. He’s been criticised by others in his field for oversimplifying science, but there’s no question he has a talent for boiling down complex ideas into compelling narratives that inform and persuade. Other technical types — engineers, technologists, physicians, lawyers — could learn from his approach.
But most of my inspiration comes from the arts and literature. The whole basis of my teaching is that practically everything we need to know about business communication can be learned from the world of performance —from connecting with an audience to expressing ourselves creatively.
Recent examples include the linguistic dexterity of novelist Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch, the way actor Sterling K. Brown can evoke emotion with no words at all in the American TV drama This is Us and the forceful storytelling that musician Bruce Springsteen brings to his recent Broadway show.
YS: What are the top three ways in which digital media is transforming the craft of storytelling – for the better and the worse?
RB: First, digital communication places a premium on brevity, and I always say when it comes to storytelling, shorter is better. Especially for amateur storytellers.
Second, having an HD camera in virtually everyone’s hands have democratised storytelling, making it far easier to collect stories from employees, customers, and other audiences. That way it’s not all “top-down” storytelling from corporates.
Finally, of course, digital has allowed widespread and easy sharing of stories which, one would hope, might create more empathy and understanding across cultures.
YS: How does storytelling culture differ in countries around the world, e.g. US vs. Europe and Asia?
RB: I am not an expert in international cultures and customs, but when I do speak internationally I always work with clients to ensure I know as much as possible about the audience I’ll be working with (which I do domestically, too, of course).
One important thing I’ve learned — and this goes back to my days working at an international PR firm — is that people in other countries are often not as “expressive” as people in the US might typically be, with our “Have a nice day” email signoffs and possible overuse of exclamation points.
Because emotion is critical to successful storytelling, people in some cultures may worry that they’re expected to create an “Oprah”-style moment that takes them far out of their comfort zone. So I work extra hard to take the fear out of storytelling and bring people along to a place that works for them.
YS: What is it like to make a living as a storytelling coach and consultant? What are the challenges you face, and how do you tackle them?
RB: The biggest challenge is overcoming people’s scepticism about storytelling. Some bottom line-oriented people or highly technical ones, like lawyers or engineers, discount storytelling as “soft” or lacking in substance.
It’s important to emphasise that stories are not a replacement for facts and data — they’re a supplement to it. Often a vital supplement. Studies show people respond better to a cohesive narrative than a data dump. And they want to get a better sense of the people behind the product or brand.
In order to change minds, you have to win hearts, and stories offer a path for doing that.
So I start by speaking their language — presenting the hard evidence for why stories work — then I lead them through the process of discovering and shaping their stories.
YS: What new projects or initiatives are you working on now? Where do you see yourself headed in the next 5-10 years?
RB: I am always working to expand my portfolio, developing new keynotes on communication topics, and adding new material to existing programs. In the next 5-10 years, I envision doing more and more virtual training and online coaching to meet clients’ needs.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
RB: It will probably be about advanced presentation skills, which is my other major area of focus, and the subject of my second book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins. A great presentation can help you close a sale, win over a sceptic, motivate a team or build your brand.
Much has been written on the subject, but the problem of Death by PowerPoint persists. Attend any conference or typical corporate meeting and you see the same thing: dull, ugly visuals, information overload, lacklustre delivery.
Presenters need to step up their game because audiences are more sophisticated than ever. They’re watching TED Talks and they expect more. So the new book will draw on many of the lessons I’ve taught — and learned — doing individual and group training for hundreds of leaders.
YS: What is your parting message to startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
RB: Don’t let fear stop you from letting go of the data and opening up and telling your story. Companies often make similar-sounding claims, but nobody else has your specific story. That’s a competitive advantage that can distinguish you from others and ensure you’re remembered.