Since ancient times, storytelling has been a widely used art form not only as a tool of entertainment but also to impart information and to motivate and influence people. Many companies today, are harnessing the power of storytelling to motivate behavior and impart value systems among employees.
Lead With A Story (2012) by Paul Smith emphasizes the importance that storytelling plays in today’s corporate world. It is a skill that is valuable for executives, managers, and leaders alike and useful for incorporating storytelling to enhance skills. It gives us examples of how stories can benefit organizations as well as what constitutes a good story.
Storytelling for business is not a new concept. A number of successful organizations, right from Nike to Microsoft and Costco to FedEx use corporate storytelling to good use.
Right from the beginning, stories have been used to share and impart knowledge. Before books and before the printing press was invented, the sharing of information was oral – in the form of stories. Storytelling has a number of advantages –
- Anybody can learn from stories
- To learn from stories, one need not be educated
- Age is not a barrier for storytelling
- Stories are memorable means of imparting information
- They help in retaining information better and faster
- Stories can appeal to all types of people.
There are three types of learners and everyone can be classified into at least one category –
- Visual Learners – They need imagery for a story to appeal, about 40% of humans are visual learners.
- Auditory Learners – The vocabulary aspect of a story appeals to auditory learners. 40% of learners are auditory learners.
- Kinetic learners – The other 20% of learners are kinetic learners and the emotions and feelings conveyed by stories appeal to them.
Stories, as we can see, can appeal to and influence all types of people. That makes it a wonderful universal tool for reaching the masses. Additionally, in the corporate world, stories can be strategically used to get information, principles, values, and much more across to employees. Further, we shall see how stories can influence.
The Magic Of Customer Stories
Let us begin with a story.
Ray Brook was visiting Portland for a series of meetings and needed to hire a vehicle from National Car Rental to get to his meetings. At the counter, he realized that his driving license had expired. The company would not be able to legally let him rent a vehicle.
As he waited for his license renewal to come through the next day, the employees of National Car rental agreed to drive him from the meeting to the hotel and to the next meeting too! They also drove him to the DMV to get the license renewed.
The quality of the service provided by the car rental company amazed him, prompting him to write a letter to the CEO of the company, appreciating the efforts and excellent services he received.
The CEO, impressed and proud of his employees, started using the story as an example of exceptional customer service to his staff all over the country. Brook’s experience of customer service soon became the standard of service expected from employees.
This demonstrates the power of a story in motivating employees to ensure great customer service time and again. It also shows why, as customers, it is important to provide feedback on service experiences. Leaders should be on the lookout for exceptional stories to turn into learning opportunities. Simply ensuring that customers have a place to provide feedback can work wonders.
Values and Culture through Storytelling
How many times have we seen the values of a company being hollow and restricted to a vision, mission, and motto on a presentation?
Storytelling is an excellent medium, through which organizations can help employees understand the true worth of the values and the culture of the company. Additionally, it helps to imbibe, among the employees, a true sense of what is expected from them.
The following P&G employee experience is an excellent example.
During the 2011 Egypt revolution, Rasoul Madidi and his family were stranded in Egypt, trying to leave the country. At the airport, flights were getting canceled due to instability. Madidi called P&G and told them his plight. P&G assured him and his family help and safety, and purchased tickets on five flights, ensuring that he would get to leave the country as soon as possible. They also provided accommodation and supplies post landing. The company put its employee first.
The story shows how the P&G really ‘valued their employees’. P&G also shares stories on their website about new mothers who have benefitted by using the company’s flexible work policy. These stories demonstrate to others that flexibility is embedded in their work culture.
Forging Diversity Through Stories
Leaders and organizations often rack their brains with ‘how to build great working relationships within teams’, especially the ones with diversity and ones where diversity is needed. The answer lies in creating a platform where team members can share personal stories.
The story of a person called Jamie is a classic example. Jamie, the leader of his team, was simply unable to bond with his team members and make friends with them. During one of the bonding sessions at work, Jamie shared the story of his bi-polar brother who had committed suicide. The story brought tears to almost everyone’s eyes and made them change their perceptions about their team leader. They started seeing Jamie as more than just a co-worker and made him more relatable.
Stories can also help people in a team understand the differences in behavior, personality, culture, personal values, etc. of each team member and give them insight into their colleague’s cultures, behaviors, and personalities.
‘Story-fying’ The Company Policy
Have you ever read the entire company policy document that lays out the rules and regulations? It’s a fair possibility that more than 90 percent of the employees do not read this vital document. How does an organization, therefore, ensure that employees are aware of certain rules and regulations, and at least make an attempt to read them?
The Answer: Through stories!
Let’s take another example from P&G. During induction, P&G employees are told a story about two erstwhile employees who were fired due to the abuse of ‘free for training members’ cafeteria services. The two employees would eat free lunch meant for only for trainees on a regular basis. While their sneaking went unnoticed for some time, they finally got caught and were fired.
The story helps outline some important company rules and prompts people to go through the company policy.
Inspiration And Motivation Via Stories
Storytelling is the perfect medium to inspire and motivate employees. Whether motivation and inspiration is needed to finish a tough project or to reinforce the values of perseverance, stories can help a leader cross that additional mile and give his team the needed push.
The story of John Stephen Akhwari, a Tanzanian Olympic Marathon runner is a well known motivational story. Akhwari, in the 1968 Olympics suffered a dislocated knee during the run. Instead of giving up, he continued the agonizing run to the finish, reaching the stadium an hour after the winner. When he was asked why did he continue running despite his injury, he replied, “My country didn’t send me 5,000 miles to start this race, they sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”
Inspirational and motivational stories of examples within the company can also be used as well. Nothing works like a story that is close to home.
Context, Action, Result
We have seen the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ storytelling is beneficial for corporates. However, what constitutes a good story?
All through primary schooling, we learn that a story contains an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. In the corporate world, the same principles apply. Context, action, and the result are the three main ingredients of a good story.
- Context – ‘Context’ refers to the introduction of the story – when and where does the story takes place – and helps the audience understand what is the story about, and whether it is true or hypothetical. The context introduces the protagonist and the antagonist (if any) and places the setting of the story. The context should be relatable and capture the attention of the audience.
- Action – Essentially the body of the story, ‘action’ refers to the actual story. It describes the difficult path the protagonist takes to reach a goal or enumerates the failures encountered to finally succeed. The action is the journey of the story towards the finish.
- The result – The ‘result’ of the story is its conclusion. The result of the actions of the protagonist has a verifiable outcome. The result always has learning or a moral that the audience learns from and can take home.
Any story that follows a tight context, action, and result is a successful story. However, there are two more vital elements, without which any story will be ineffective.
Elements Of A Good Story
Context, result, and action form the framework of storytelling. However, the two elements of emotion and surprise can help grip the audience’s attention and help the message of the story hit home.
A good, successful story always creates an emotional connection with the audience. However, the story has to appeal to the right emotions to make any impact. For example, a story about valor and bravery is of no use if the idea is to invoke cautiousness among employees, just as an emotional tearjerker will have no appeal if the outcome needed is bravery and candor.
Most emotional stories and their connections can be observed by going through customer surveys of feedback and experiences. These are an organization’s treasure trove of storytelling.
Along with emotion, the element of surprise is very useful to wake-up an audience and to keep their attention in focus. Surprize can be used at the beginning of the story to make the start gripping, in the middle of the story to get the audience to focus, or even at the end to create a climaxing effect to the suspense.
Adding surprise to the end of a story helps in memory consolidation – a phenomenon where the memories are created in the moments following an experience. Storytellers often use memory consolidation by attaching memories to particular stimuli such as adrenalin. The element of surprise ensures that the story remains firmly planted in the audience’s mind.
Storytelling is extremely lucrative for businesses. Right from emphasizing the importance of the company policy to appealing to diverse team members, stories can help leaders and organizations share knowledge, motivate employees, and even build successful teams.