Recent articles from Harvard Business Review (Storytelling That Moves People, Good Companies Are Storytellers. Great Companies Are Storydoers, The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool) Forbes (How to Use Storytelling as a Leadership Tool), Fast Company (The Simple Science to Good Storytelling),and LinkedIn (This Will Be The #1 Business Skill Of The Next 5 Years) have narrowed-in on the importance of business storytelling. And although such drum-beating is raising interest in the concept, resistance remains. Most people understand the importance of story from an intellectual perspective, yet few believe, even fewer know how to do it, and fewer still can do it well. The question is “Why?”
Part of the problem is a misconception that comes from a very unlikely source: elementary school teachers, who’ve encoded our deepest memories with the concept of “Story Time.” For better or worse, the word story is stained indelibly with images of children gathered around teachers reading from picture books. And that image is then reinforced by well-meaning evangelists who just can’t help themselves. If I see one more PowerPoint slide adorned with clip art of kids sitting around a campfire, I’m gonna scream.
The problem with approaching storytelling from the perspective of a child is that it devalues its impact. Storytelling isn’t kidstuff. When executed well, it’s a powerful force. Put into the hands of a dissident like Václav Havel, it has the power to change nations. Wielded by leaders such as Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, it can change race relations and put a man on the moon. But, as with all forms of power, story is also morally neutral. The same force that can incite an oppressed people to seek freedom can also be used to inspire terrorism (Al Queda, ISIS), genocide (Hitler), and mass suicide (James Jones).
Understanding the power of storytelling is easy. Doing it well is hard. Putting the power of story into the hands of untrained communicators is like giving a guns to babies. Without a fundamental understanding of the craft, they’ll not only damage the brand, but they’ll simultaneously kill the future of business storytelling before it has a chance to thrive.
How did you do that?
A few months ago, a friend described a presentation that he was preparing. He had gathered all of the information, crafted some slides, but just couldn’t figure out how to string them together. The book that he was reading, Resonate by Nancy Duarte, told him to tell a story. “But, how do I do that?” he asked.
Luckily, I’m familiar with his industry, so I had a pretty good understanding of his material and his audience. I rattled off the storyline as I saw it.
That’s when he asked me a question that stumped me. “How did you do that?” he asked.
“Put that story together so quickly?”
I didn’t understand the question. I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. Asking how I tell a story is sort of like asking me, “How do you breathe?”
For the next few weeks I thought about his question. I wondered, where do corporate communicators turn to learn the craft of business storytelling? It only took a few Google searches to find a slew of newly-minted business storytellers and agencies who would love to be storytelling surrogates. But, who is teaching the craft of storytelling? Who are the Robert McKees of business storytelling, experienced storytellers who don’t gloss-over “tell a story,” but break story into raw elements, examine the nuances of each, and use business language to explain them?
The more I thought about it, the more I saw a need. The core of all storytelling is the same. The rules for each genre, however, are different. For example, the genre of business storytelling comes with unique set of constraints, most importantly: time-constrained audiences. Unlike screenwriters who have the luxury of writing for an audience that paid ten bucks to sit in a darkened movie theater with their cell phones set to vibrate, business storytellers must communicate with overly-stimulated customers floating in a sea saturated with distracting messages.
My friend’s question set me on a quest to define a business storytelling process. For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to document how I breathe, by developing a step-by-step method to help business communicators tell their own stories.
Over the next few months I’ll be sharing my work with you, so keep an eye on this space for further developments.