"Those who tell the stories rule the world." --Hopi American Indian proverb
Words have power. This is a timeless truth. People have been telling each other stories since ancient times as a way of recording history, building community, and entertaining each other. Today is no different. A business leader, charged with creating a corporate culture or wining a future customer, must employ the same tactics. So now ?business storytelling? is a regular feature of leadership courses and best practice articles.
There is a large emotional component to storytelling. To tell a personal truth or to recount an experience invariably has a component of ?wearing your heart on your sleeve.? This has not been the conventional formula for winning at business. At MIT Sloan Business School, a clever program for bridging the gap between business and its emotional components, called The Yarn1, invites students to share personal stories to foster a greater sense of belonging. One student involved in The Yarn said his participation helped him overcome his fear that he would not be accepted because he came from a low-income background.
Rather than being radical, programs like The Yarn are in step with a larger movement among business schools2 to teach future leaders how to weigh the need to turn a profit with ethical decision-making and to consider impacts on disadvantaged groups. If great stories rely on context, today?s environment is a complex one. ????
Just like people, businesses need self-awareness to tell a good story. What do I stand for? Why should people want to buy my product or service? What makes me different from competitors? These are all good questions for business leaders to know.?
In some cases, it will be their personal experiences that lend themselves to the best stories.
For instance Sallie Krawcheck3, CEO and co-founder, Ellevest, an investment company designed for women, using algorithms tailored to women?s incomes and life cycles, talks openly about her experiences as a Wallstreet CEO. She candidly discusses issues like the gender pay gap and women?s experience moving in and out of the workforce based on life events. It was her personal experience and observance of other women?s that led her to develop her online investment platform. Helping women achieve retirement goals through financial planning is the mission of her company and her passion is clearly behind it.
Former Starbuck?s CEO, Howard Schultz4, also has earned street cred for storytelling. He is open about how his low-income background and upbringing in the projects fueled his ambitions. One of the stories he tells from that time sheds light on how he built the Starbuck?s empire. The story goes that as a boy his aunt brought him to The Automat and Schultz asked how the pie came out after you put the quarter in the slot. She told him it was a magician. He believed her. That sense of wonder, the ?theater and romance? of the experience, is what he says animated his vision for the Starbuck?s retail experience.
What Krawcheck and Schultz have in common about their storytelling techniques is authenticity. This is one of the ?five essential tips? for storytelling according to Mike Kappel at Forbes5. He writes, ?Authentic storytelling is key to gaining consumer trust. Don?t try to fool your audience with an over-the-top tale. Customers know when you try to pull a fast one on them, and they don?t appreciate it.?
And if your company does not have a dramatic story behind, don?t try to make one up. Go with simplicity and transparency, over embellishment. Discuss failures frankly.
In the accounting and finance worlds, storytelling has taken on new resonance as professionals are charged with a host of new activities beyond just financial planning and analysis. In IMA?s (Institute of Management Accountants) joint paper with American Association of Chartered Accountants (ACCA), ?100 Drivers of Change for the Global Accountancy Profession,? a key competency both IMA and ACCA view as essential is ?narrative construction, business storytelling, and visual presentation of data.? When these are executed effectively, they allow firms to ?reach out and assure diverse stakeholders of their governance, probity and prospects.? Leadership academies, like the kind IMA? (Institute of Management Accountants) sponsors, are also important forums for young professionals to learn how to open up and tell their stories.
International staffing firm, Robert Half, also shares advice from Tracey Segarra of New York?s Margolin, Winer & Evens6, on best practices in storytelling. Among her tips, ?Inspire Action.? She says:
?Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson use storytelling to their advantage. He was stranded at an airport on a remote island when his flight was canceled. He chartered a plane and offered to take the other bumped passengers to their destinations for $39 apiece. Not long afterward, he founded the British airline Virgin Atlantic.?
This story contains the value proposition of Virgin Atlantic (i.e., seamless service with a willingness to fix problems when they arise). It is one that could easily be applied to professional services. Explaining how you can solve a problem through narrative is effective in presentations as well as job interviews. Often this is what your audience is waiting to hear. And they hone in on statements that sound implausible or insincere, so don?t make them.
As IMA?s chief storyteller, I like to think I know a thing or two about storytelling. One thing I can tell you with certainty is no matter how smart you sound, how cool your PPT looks, or how well you dressed that day, if you don?t tell the truth, your audience will know.
1 ?The Yarn: My Experience Wearing My Heart On My Sleeve At Sloan,? MIT Sloan Student Blog, June 23, 2015
2 ?Business Schools Now Teaching #MeToo, N.F.L. Protests, and Trump,? The New York Times, December 25, 2017
3 ?Sallie Krawcheck?s Plan to Make Money by Helping Women Retire Rich,? Bloomberg, September 18, 2017
4 ?Starbuck?s Howard Schultz: Childhood In The Projects Inspired His Ambition,? CNN Money, February 9, 2017
5 ?Five Essential Tips For Business Storytelling,? Forbes, January 17, 2018
6 ?How Storytelling Can Push Accounting To The Top,? Robert Half, April 17, 2017