It is not just business logic that works effectively for startups and large enterprises, but the emotional power of storytelling. This author shares eight uses of business stories, classified into four types.
Stories hold a unique place in our psyche, and the right story at the right time can be a game-changer in business, as explained in the book Stories for Work: The Essential Guide to Business Storytelling by Gabrielle Dolan. Storytelling gives the narrator an edge in a wide range of work contexts: group settings, one-on-one interactions, and in the online medium.
Gabrielle Dolan is an organisational storytelling consultant and author from Australia. Her books include Hooked: How Leaders Connect, Engage and Inspire with Storytelling; Ignite: Real Leadership, Real Talk, Real Results; and Storytelling for Job Interviews. She was earlier at National Australia Bank, and founded storytelling firm One Thousand & One.
The book has dozens of examples of stories in action, along with context, analysis, and impact. There are also in-depth case studies of organisational storytelling practices at three large firms: Australia Post, Bupa, and Spark. The 15 chapters are spread across 175 pages and make for a useful read.
Here are my three key sets of takeaways from the book, summed up in the sections below. Entrepreneurs should also check out YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas, a free visualisation tool for startups and innovators.
See also my reviews of the six related books Unleash the Power of Storytelling, Let the Story Do the Work, The Storyteller’s Secret, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, First-Time Leader and Stories at Work.
Storytelling is not just for a select few extroverts who are good at public speaking; it is for everyone, even those who regard their own life and work as ‘boring.’ With exposure, practice and courage, storytelling can become a popular practice for effective communication.
Stories are important in the business world because they provoke emotions, spur connections, form bonds, and inspire people to new states of mind or courses of action. Stories build trust and credibility; they spark emotions that lead to decisions, Gabrielle explains.
Stories can generate influence and impact. They help listeners focus on the bigger picture or the core message, and recall or even retell the story later on their own, thus creating ripple effects. Even boring routine contexts can be reshaped with creativity and humour, as shown in the safety videos of Air New Zealand and Qantas.
Gabrielle defines four types of stories: triumph, transition, tension and tragedy. Stories of triumph can be about personal victories, or wins of others where you have helped. Transitions can be voluntary or involuntary, or instigated by you. Tension stories illustrate conflicts between values, loyalties, or obligations. Tragedy stories can be about regret, or tragedies inflicted on/by you.
These four kinds of stories can found in personal and work-related settings. It is good to have a mix of all types of stories in your repertoire, Gabrielle advises. For stories to be effective, they need to be authentic, and have a sense of purpose.
It helps by first listing all kinds of experiences you have had, and then seeing which ones have embedded stories. Some experiences may bring out more than two types of stories, but it is better not to narrate more than two – otherwise it may confuse the listener, Gabrielle suggests.
Seemingly trivial stories may actually have a notable impact, depending on the context. In general, practice and testing help weed out unnecessary details, names and numbers from the story, even though they may seem useful or even humorous.
The beginning should be short and succinct, and the use of specific dates can prime listeners to the significance of the story. The middle section of the story should connect, engage and inspire listeners.
The end of a good story has three parts, Gabrielle explains: a bridge (connecting the story to the business, eg. “I am sharing this because”), a link (connecting the story to the overall purpose, eg. “I invite you to” or “Imagine if”), and a pause (to let the audience connect to the story, even if the silence may be a bit awkward).
II. Storytelling in business contexts
The author shares the use of business stories in eight categories, with actual stories from companies such as Accenture, Bank of Melbourne, National Australia Bank, DibbsBarker, Putti, AECOM, Lyric, and ME Bank.
Stories in presentations can show passion and credibility on the topic, and not come across as “fluff.” They should be well practised but not come across as too rehearsed or unnatural. They add a personal touch and bring humanity and character into the situation.
Stories for organisational change require leaders to exhibit vulnerability and emotion, for which capabilities need to be built in management for story listening and crafting. Stories that address sporting analogies, mentors as characters, the importance of prioritisation, and dependable figures work well.
During sales pitches, stories should bring out product benefits and professional values, and address customer concerns and misgivings. Putting a face on prior customer testimonials, personal experiences with work activities, and empathy narratives help in this regard.
Stories can also be used to communicate values and vision through authentic leadership. Leaders should focus not just on rollouts of value statements on coffee mugs and posters, but by showing how they live the values of the company and demonstrate the required behaviours. Showing instances of vulnerability or courage works well in this context.
Stories are also an important part of the personal brand. “Your brand is the stories people share about you when you are not there,” Gabriella explains. Personal brand stories should be authentic, evolve over time, and be strategically used. Explaining the influences people have had on you, experiences during ill health, or personal loss can be a part of such stories.
In the context of coaching and mentoring, the goal is to open new perspectives to listeners and help them suspend their own judgment, rather than dictating what to do. Stories in this context should challenge their thinking, while also showing empathy and vulnerability.
During job interviews, stories help candidates go beyond factual listings on the resume. Anecdotes about commitment, passion, integrity, and teamwork help create emotional connections with the interviewer.
Stories can also be shared via blogs and newsletters, where photos and videos can be used as well. Examples of how contexts can be reframed via viewpoint or long-term perspective are effective. They should also spur readers to be more curious and open-minded, and reinterpret their own contexts. Cross-cultural stories work well in the global online world.
III. Case studies
The book ends with case studies of storytelling practices and culture in three organisations. Each case study covers the company profile, organisational communication initiative, actual stories used, and subsequent impacts.
Australian Post used stories during an enterprise exercise to refocus on the customer experience. The five values of safety, respect, help, improvement and delight were defined in a programme aptly called Grapevine. It started off with stories from five leaders and was then rolled out across all states.
The story sharing exercise was found to improve how employees understood the values and were able to explain and converse about them. Many employees appreciated the creativity, imagination, inspiration and enlightenment of the stories. Employee engagement and pride also increased.
Healthcare company Bupa consolidated the diverse values of its acquired companies: passionate, caring, open, authentic, accountable, courageous, and extraordinary. Seven stories were narrated by leaders during a two-day leadership conference, bringing out elements of compassion, sportsmanship, humanitarianism and altruism.
Managers were given toolkits to improve storytelling, and the programme was adopted worldwide. The company conducts ‘value of the month’ campaigns for employees to share stories about these values being brought to life.
New Zealand telco Spark (formerly Telcom) reinvigorated its brand by asking employees to write down the company’s new values, thus creating a sense of ownership in these values. They were written in ordinary language (eg. We listen, We win together).
Storytelling skills were taught via workshops, and leaders shared stories highlighting empathy, cogent arguments, vulnerability, teamwork, and the need for change. Employee confidence and capability in storytelling increased as a result. The company also launched an initiative called Little Victories for employees to share stories about how they were truly useful to customers.
“Too often, companies expect leaders to communicate the values, live the values, and deliver the values through the organisation, but don’t provide the space and skills for them to do that,” Gabrielle sums up, with a strong call for greater appreciation of storytelling.
The book ends with further tips from the author on the power of vulnerability, judicious use of humour, fine-tuning of the story repertoire, and ethical issues such as avoiding manipulation or fabrication of stories.
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