Five years ago I started my company working out of a co-working space that was filled with other like-minded startups and entrepreneurs. All of us passionate and excited to be turning a passion into a business. It was in the place, full of promise and business naivety that I experienced my first cold water moment. I was in the kitchen getting tea to start my day when two other residents asked me what I do. With a broad smile, I replied: “I teach people to be better business storytellers.” They both looked at me and replied: “I would never go to anything with the word Storytelling in the title.” It landed like a punch in the stomach that left me deflated, but it was a good lesson to learn early on. One that I made sure to address in every pitch and workshop that I taught from that moment on.
Storytelling is seen as a touchy feeling good to have, but not relevant to the bottom line environment of corporate business culture. Neuroscience has since born out the concrete benefits of storytelling in business, proving in numbers and graphs that when we listen to stories our brains are actually reacting on a hormonal level, releasing either cortisol which makes us pay attention and improves our recall, or oxytocin which affects our ability to empathize and critical to bonding with others. As explained in Harvard Business Review:“Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them. Stories change attitudes and behaviour.” Five years later, the question why use storytelling in business has been replaced with how.
When people talk informally, 65% of the time they are telling stories. – Robin Dunbar (evolutionary biologist )
The stories that we tell our friends and families are not the stories that we tell at work to inspire our employees. There’s one very practical and deliberate difference.
“What makes a business story is the connection to a strategy or key issue.” –Alison Davis, Inc.com
The structure of a business story is more refined and the reason for the story is more deliberate.
If you’re not sure what story to tell, first look at your current business strategy and identify the main idea you want your employees to remember. The story you tell provides context that supports this idea.
When I work with presenters, I always ask: “If you only had 5 minutes, what is the one thing you want your participants to remember when they leave?” You may present 3 or even 20 things, but of those things, what is the most important idea? This becomes your centre.
For example, let’s say our business strategy is: We want our employees to use a new type of software.
What problem is created if your employees don’t use this new software?
In every story, there is a moment that moves the character (your business, employees or CEO) out of the status quo and into the unknown. It’s the disrupter, problem or challenge that forces change. When trying to find or craft a story, first look for the problem. It’s in the problem that you’ll find the story. A good story is always about overcoming an obstacle. Once you know the problem, go backwards.
In this example, the benefit of this new software will make them stand out from their competitors, impress potential clients and retain current ones. The problem presented if they don’t: they’ll fall behind their competitors and lose market share. The emotional impact on their employees: learning to do something new is not easy. It challenges established habits and takes more energy and time.
Your story needs to inspire your employees and convince that the time and effort to learn and work with the new software will be worth it.
In this example, the story needs to demonstrate the before and after of using this new technology. When finding your story structure, start by filling in the following blanks:
We were (context: time and place) when this happened (problem or challenge). Because of this, we weren’t able to (rising action/increase stakes: what is the next main challenge presented because of this problem?) When we realized (climax: this can be a shift in perspective or solution to the problem is found) that allowed us to (falling action: what was the effect on the situation was the solution was applied). We had discovered or learned that (Denouement/resolution: how did the people in the story change or what did they learn they didn’t they now know at the beginning?)
A good story includes change. If the beginning is the same as the end, no one will care. A business story doesn’t have to be long. The more precise you are the better. Remember to include sensory descriptions! Don’t shy away from describing feelings experienced at each moment in the story, and include details of the environment, from colour to texture to smell. It helps your audience picture themselves in your story. Be sure to include emotion and the human impact of the issue. We are social creatures which make our emotions connected to people, not things. And practice! Know how and why your story is connected to your business strategy and practice telling it.
The difference between a good story that inspires others could mean the difference between success and failure.