Mahesh Bellie is a VP Marketing @ Indium & Business storytelling coach whose work lies at the intersection of tech, consulting & marketing.
Business storytelling is one of those buzzwords that resurfaces in business and marketing discussions all the time. Pundits highlight why it needs to drive key organizational initiatives, such as business development, marketing, instilling culture, change management and leadership development, to name a few.
However, many people’s understanding of business storytelling is far from ideal. A Google search will help you discover the range of ideas that is out there, some outright contradictory. Generally, these ideas advocate that professionals use stories in business situations rather than enabling them to become storytellers themselves.
I believe this lack of a concrete approach has rendered business storytelling a fad and a nice-to-have skill instead of allowing it to have the strategic focus it deserves.
So, what does business storytelling mean in reality? And how can professionals build this skill to succeed in their endeavors? Here’s some help.
A Practical Approach To Business Storytelling
My definition for business storytelling is “learning to adapt story structures for business communications to persuade your audience to take action. And as part of the endeavor, one may or may not use stories (personal or fictional) to derive the intended outcome.”
The above definition highlights four steps that professionals can use to build their business storytelling skills. Let’s dive in.
1. Get Familiar With Standard Story Structures
The commonly used story structure is the situation-complication-resolution (or its variants, which accommodate different circumstances). For example, when you’re addressing an emergency, the better structure to use might be complication-situation-resolution. But as you can see, the components of the story are essentially the same.
How you narrate your story to a doctor when you are in pain is considerably different to how you narrate an event from your vacation to a friend, isn’t it?
2. Adapt The Story Structure To Accommodate Business Components
To ensure efficacy, you should modify the story format and its components according to the business need.
For example, the resolution can be a “solution” (that you implemented in the past), or it can be a “recommendation” (something that should be considered for the future). The tone of the narration will differ depending on what type of resolution you use.
Out of many, one of the key components you should modify for business use is the level of emotion or dramatization you use. A story is full of emotions—love, hate, anger, vengeance and so on—that have little relevance in business. However, businesses deal with emotions too. Fear (of going obsolete), desire (to grow), ambition (for market share), hope (for the future) and so on are all relevant. The more appropriate the emotion, the better it will resonate with your audience.
3. Identify Areas Of Strategic Communication To Which You Can Apply Storytelling
We have come a long way from being an industrial society to a knowledge-based society.
Imagine a leader perched on an elevated platform of a factory floor addressing the employees, or a bunch of workers reading a piece of paper on a notice board that carries the leader’s message. That one-way communication was the de facto approach during the industrial era.
On the contrary, the modern knowledge-based workplace thrives on communication across all segments of employees.
• Leaders communicate strategy, visions, missions, policies, changes and so on to employees.
• Architects or account managers communicate plans, reviews, trends, proposals and so on to customers.
• Sales and marketing personnel communicate services, products and insights to prospects.
• Employees communicate innovative ideas and recommendations to leadership.
• Employees share knowledge and ideas and train other employees.
As you can see, strategic communication permeates most aspects of our work.
4. Persuade Through Your Storytelling For Business Impact
The very reason all businesses communicate, whether they are big or small and profit or nonprofit is to persuade another person (or organization) to buy into an idea, a product or a service. And this need for persuasion can guide professionals to obtain the right data, create the right logic, and add examples, anecdotes or stories to bring about the desired business outcome.
In effect, business storytelling is a well-structured, logical, emotion-infused narrative that strives to deliver intended business outcomes. To understand how important it is for leaders and employees to build this skill, look no further than Amazon’s approach.
Storytelling At Amazon
In a letter to shareowners, Jeff Bezos details the approach Amazon takes for their employees to share their business ideas.
He said, “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.’ … Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion.”
Bezos says a six-page memo might take at least a week or more to write. In the memo, Bezos refers to these meeting documents as “narratives.” It is interesting to note that this perspective is coming from the former CEO of an organization that is largely driven by data.
“It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable,” he said.
But it is describable. We just did it.