This was one of the questions that surfaced recently during an interview with an Asian newspaper.
I’ve captured the high points in an abbreviated version of the interview .
Q: Define storytelling as it relates to business communications.
A: Obviously, companies don’t have 300 pages or two hours on the silver screen to develop a plot, cultivate characters and tease out a story with enough twists that perspiration forms on the audience’s brow.
Still, companies can take the techniques of storytelling and apply them to communications.
If you simplify the classic storytelling arc, the concept comes down to contrasting failure with success. I recognize that companies prefer not to divulge failures, but you can still build stories around contrast with building blocks as basic as the “before” and “after.”
Q: If You Had to Choose One Action to Help Companies Lift Storytelling, What Would It Be?
A: At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I would say de-emphasize key messages. They can have a suffocating effect on storytelling.
It amazes me how much time companies still devote to developing pristine messages. I suppose focus groups and candy companies would take a hit if messaging went by the wayside.
Instead, identifying broad themes allows companies to devote their energy to crafting stories that support those themes.
I defy you to find one customer or prospective customer on the planet who ever uttered the words, “Wow! What a great message.”
Q: What else can drive a storytelling mentality through a company?
A: It certainly helps to have the top executives walking the talk in applying storytelling to their own communications. When people see and hear the boss communicating this way, it encourages them to be brave in their own communications.
The McKinsey Quarterly had a terrific article some time ago that correlates leadership with storytelling called, “Revealing Your Moment of Truth.”
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that storytelling can and should come from all reaches of a company, not just mahogany row.
Q: OK, you get a third wish.
A: This one comes compliments of your high school English teacher:
“Show. Don’t tell.”
Companies get addicted to adjectives.
Quick example –
Most companies want to be known as innovative. If you click on their websites or read their news releases, they pound their chests touting their innovation with the requisite facts and figures. Do readers take in this information and automatically conclude that the company is indeed innovative?
Of course not.
Now, share the story about an internal program called DAS (date a scientist) in which executives in the company take a scientist to a lunch on a quarterly basis, and how this cross pollination has led to fresh thinking as well as the periodic awkward moment. From such a story, the reader gets the vibe of innovation.