A good story well told stays with us. It fires our imagination, gets us emotionally engaged, it makes an impact.
Stories have the same value in business.
But if I walk into some offices or boardrooms and talk about ‘storytelling’, I might get some odd looks. There’s a fair bit of cynicism around it.
The Financial Times’ management columnist Andrew Hill is one commentator who has expressed his concern over storytelling. He wrote,
“...there is a risk that corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories. To make a business narrative stick, leaders have to repeat it, reinforcing the story for themselves. What starts as a way for chief executives to guide and motivate staff, investors, customers and boards, becomes a plot from which they cannot extricate themselves”.
I agree it’s a problem if a business’s story gets divorced from reality. If a business leader’s story is bullshit, then it should be treated with the disdain it deserves.
But when told honestly, a business story becomes so much more than a marketing tool, it’s a cultural touchstone that gets all parts of the organisation aligned.
So how to steer clear of creating works of fiction? Business storytelling is not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose and it’s not about mythmaking. It’s about holding up a mirror. When I work with organisations I often spot a disconnect between what a business says it is, and what it really is. Crafting an authentic story can help bridge that gap. It can help the organisation find its essence: who it is, what it stands for, where it’s come from and where it’s headed.
Organisations are always changing and growing, but often they don’t update their stories. They tell an outdated story that’s not relevant anymore. Standing back, getting an outside perspective to help capture and craft the real story is a great way to bridge that disconnect. In my experience it’s hard to manufacture a story when you apply an external journalistic rigour to tell it like it is. A business’s story has to be sustainable, it has to be believable. If the story isn’t credible or authentic, then someone will blow the whistle sooner rather than later.
By telling its true story a business can emphasise its ‘why’, its purpose. A story gives a business the tools to compete in a crowded or abundant market. Brands such as TOMS Shoes, Sugru and Hiut Denim have achieved commercial success not only because their products are good, but also because they tell a good story: one which aligns with their values and mission. It applies in the same way in B2B, where customers choose companies such as Mailchimp or Basecamp because they demonstrate their personality via the stories they tell. The stories those businesses tell about themselves - and their customers - helps them stand out. These stories make the customer the hero, shining the light on how their products help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow.
Getting an honest evaluation from objective outsiders will help craft a story full of fact, not fiction, and will help the business leaders be sensible and honest enough to reframe when they need to. So let's not dismiss storytelling as just another business fad. A business story told well is a powerful touchstone.