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FEATURE |

The Ancient Art of Storytelling

A class of a half-dozen women were spending a beautiful Arizona Saturday morning in a nondescript community college classroom swapping stories. From the inauspicious surroundings, one would be hard-pressed to believe that they were practicing one of business’s hottest skills — storytelling. That’s right. In the age of Big Data, algorithms and meta-analytics, more and more organizations are turning to the same techniques our prehistoric ancestors used when communicating around that new discovery, fire.

The move to storytelling is not a new business phenomenon, as many observers point out. It’s a realization that like any successful communicators, smart business people have always been telling stories to attract workers and customers.

The “faces before facts” movement has even spawned a new C-suite position — chief storytelling officer (CSTO). Such modern American success stories as Microsoft Corp. and Nike, Inc. employ CSTOs. Type “storyteller” into Indeed.com’s search engine and you’ll get more than 150 open positions.

Building Brand Reputation

While there are probably as many different job descriptions as there are storytellers, the main idea is to create a coordinated message among internal, external and marketing efforts that focuses on a company’s brand and reputation, as opposed to hard-selling a product.

“More businesses are using storytellers to develop the message of ‘who we are, what are our stories and how we are marketing those stories,’ ” said Liz Warren, faculty director for South Mountain Community College’s Storytelling Institute, which offers the class “Using Storytelling in Business Settings.”

“It’s going on in every aspect of communication. When you present information in a story, people understand it better,” said Warren, who defines a story as “a narrative form that documents change.”

But what about the facts and figures? “Many people want them and we often need them,” Warren said. “But people want to care — [to] be confident in and inspired by your business. Good leaders use storytelling to help create a vision.”

People forget numbers but remember stories, noted Mike Popovich, CEO of Scientific Technology Corp. (STC), a Phoenix-based IT company that processes records for government agencies and pharmacy chains.

“We are a technology company that deals with a lot of data,” Popovich said. “Anybody can present data. But people don’t remember facts and figures — and they change. They do remember real-life stories.” (See “A Storytelling Organization.”)

Microsoft not only has a CSTO (chief storytelling officer) but Melinda Gates is a big fan of the craft, using storytelling in The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, a book that covers the 20 years of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Storytelling is how we connect with each other,” Gates said in a May 2019 Costco Connection article promoting the book. “It’s through our storytelling that as a society we learn and grow.”

Stories can help “teach, discover and share common values,” said Jennifer Goddeaux, a senior consulting partner with Partners in Leadership.

Creating Corporate Folklore

Proponents boast many benefits of business storytelling.

On the internal side, businesses use storytelling to attract and retain talent as well as to foster engagement and loyalty.

“Stories can build a more cohesive team and develop a business culture,” Warren said.

It’s easy to see how a worker telling a personal experience about the rewards of working for a company would be more compelling to a potential hire than a few PR-ish paragraphs in slick recruiting materials.

Externally, stories can help deliver the message of what a business has to offer to customers and vendors. Those stories can come from such sources as a customer telling about a good experience with a company’s staff or product, or employees sharing with the buying public how what they do makes a difference. It sure beats most of the commercials we fast-forward through on TV.

Stories can help “teach, discover and share common values,” said Jennifer Goddeaux, a senior consulting partner with Partners in Leadership. “They go beyond facts and statistics to the heart of the matter. They can create experiences, shift beliefs and get people to take action.”

A 2018 Gallup article recommends using storytelling to create a “corporate folklore.” Those suggested stories can revolve around “meaningful moments” of vulnerability and examples of how employees and the company handled the challenges. Such tales can help workers identify with a company culture that encourages employees to take risks. Or as the Storytelling Institute’s Warren said, “Stories are about trouble and what you can do to overcome it. Nobody wants to know if you won if it was easy. Tell them what you went through.”

Gallup divides those vulnerable moments into four categories:

  • When you ask for a new idea.
  • When you ask for help.
  • When you push back on something.
  • When you ask for a personal favor.

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The article uses an example of a story told by a hospital that encourages employees to make improvements to patient and worker experiences. In one instance, staff members violated policy by moving a dying patient and his medical equipment outdoors because he told them he had a spiritual connection with nature. After he died peacefully on a hospital patio, the employees reported themselves for breaking policy and suggested the hospital turn an outdoor area into a patient garden. The CEO agreed with the idea, put money in the budget for it and praised the group at an all-company meeting.

“The employees of that hospital will tell and retell the story of when their CEO celebrated employees who took a risk for the sake of a patient’s experience,” author Jake Herway wrote in that Gallup article. “Each time an employee tells the story — to a new hire, to a colleague or to a friend outside the company — they reinforce the company culture and their personal tie to it.”

In another story set in a hospital, Goddeaux tells how an effective tale can even get people to do dreaded tasks such as paperwork. Emergency-room staff at a Boston-area hospital were completing only about 30% of intake informs. The charge nurse found stories of patients whose lives had been saved by the proper, timely completion of those forms, shared them with the staff — and participation soared to 98%.

“Storytelling is one of the cultural tools of leadership,” Goddeaux said. (See “The Great Storyteller.”)

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Go with a Pro

If you’re thinking about incorporating storytelling in your organization, don’t assume the person who holds court around the watercooler is the best candidate for CSTO, Warren warns.

Like any form of successful communication strategy, storytelling is a craft that depends on knowledge and practice of proven methods.

The South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute offers a 30-credit academic certification. Warren started the institute 25 years ago when the community college was surrounded by cotton fields and commercial flower gardens. Now, it’s the epicenter of South Phoenix gentrification.

An anthropologist by academic training, Warren began to explore storytelling to help improve her teaching.

“I came to realize I grew up at the knee of a master storyteller — my grandmother,” she said.

“Storytelling is not an easy craft,” she said. “To teach a storyteller, you need to know how to tell a story — deliver a story face-to-face. You need to know your audience, how to make a story pitch and make a story relevant. Plus, how to boil it down to one or two sentences for social media. You can’t be recycling a writing teacher [to teach storytelling] — it’s different.”

The South Mountain course is believed to be the only academic-certified program in the United States, but storytelling training is being offered at more institutions, according to Warren.

“I would love to see it recognized as an academic discipline with standalone storytelling classes for all majors as well as storytelling majors,” she said.

“Storytelling is not an easy craft. To teach a storyteller, you need to know how to tell a story — deliver a story face-to-face.”

Better Through Stories Than Raw Numbers

That Saturday morning business storytelling class was one of several similarly named classes, such as “Using Storytelling in a Social Setting.” The storytelling principles and methods are pretty much the same and need to be made relevant for the setting, Warren said. “It doesn’t have to be a business story. For example, a story about the importance of loyalty can be from another area as long as you can make it relevant to your situation.”

That session of the business storytelling class focused on one of the craft’s basic skills — the story circle. It’s an exercise where group members share their stories. With participants sitting in a circle, the facilitator provides a story prompt such as, “Think of a time you made a mistake. What did you learn from it?” Each person takes a turn telling while the others listen.

“These stories can create a bond that can develop into a community through understanding,” said instructor Vanessa Thomas-Wilson, who was teaching the class for the first time.

Like many of her students, Thomas-Wilson started taking storytelling classes to help start a side business. The 30-year pharmacist for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has taken about half the institute’s classes during the past 12 years. She doesn’t plan on completing certification but enjoys supporting the institute through such activities as teaching.

And, like Warren, she comes from a family with a rich history of storytelling.

The students described different reasons for being in the class, from a college accounting professor who says she can reach her students better through stories than raw numbers, to an affordable housing advocate who wanted to be better able to tell her “passion story” of once being homeless, to a bilingual kindergarten teacher out to improve her English skills.

“It’s so much fun to watch people surprise themselves as stories come together,” Thomas-Wilson said.

Jim Fickess

Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.