Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee
Popular throughout history as the primary means of communication, storytelling is getting a lot of attention lately. Seems that everyone is calling for more stories for the business world.
I believe in the power and importance of story. Essential to effective communication, we need stories to connect, to foster understanding, to move people to action. And yet, while everyone is talking about stories, few people are actually engaging in business storytelling.
In the last two years of working with clients to distill and effectively communicate complex topics, the search for stories revealed three findings:
- Few of the dozens of people I worked with directly were able to define “story”
- Less people were capable of telling a story; this wasn’t limited to the business context,
- Each organization — and most people — were convinced they had stories, and were dismayed to learn they didn’t
Despite a culture rich in professionally crafted stories delivered through books, television, and movies, business “storytelling” is a nothing more than a transactional listing of events.
How organizations tell stories today
When asked for stories, the organizations I work with often send me documented examples of the success of their solution.
These documents generally chronicle how CLIENT (ideally a recognizable name), working with TECHNOLOGY (the platform and other relevant details) was not getting promised results. Good news! When CLIENT implemented VENDOR solution, CLIENT was happy. Sometimes it includes quantitative proof of results.
Under the guise of story, these documents merely provided a series of facts, leaving it to the reader to surmise the details, and if possible, tell their own story. The reality is most readers don’t. They lack the desire, the time, and the experience to craft their own story from the presented facts.
While the example is common with vendor literature, I’ve seen worse when it comes to internal projects at large enterprises. The use of stories to improve adoption and implementation of project is in short supply. As a result, projects get bogged down, efforts get derailed, and sales take even longer.
Houston, we have a problem.
In order to tell stories, we have to know what a story is.
What constitutes a story?
Storytelling is a broad discipline with different approaches, models, and types of stories. As a basic guide, a story has three parts:
- Conflict (too aggressive? use challenge)
The power of story is the limitless ways these three elements can be combined to connect with people emotionally, convey information and even inspire action. In stories, one or more characters work through a challenge to reach resolution. Often, the characters experience a transformation as a result.
Why tell business stories?
As we journey with the characters, we feel something. We understand. Whether we root for, against, or both, we get vested in the outcome. It becomes important to learn how they handle the struggle, and what happens to them as a result.
When the story hits close to home, it becomes an opportunity to learn. Good stories told well are a lens by which we can view ourselves.
When selling a concept, process, solution to someone else, a story helps put it in context. Make no mistake, everyone sells. Every project. Every idea. Every effort requires convincing someone else to take action, show support, or adopt a different approach.
Stories allow us to share information in a way that makes sense. Stories bring ideas to life.
Change is scary. Change is risky. Stories connect with those fears and concerns and demonstrates how they may or may not come true. Used properly, stories reveal a pathway to change.