art of storytelling
Myra A. Thomas
is the only task a leader cannot delegate.Roberto C. Goizueta
is an intuitive processthe language that inspires comes from deep
within, to create a human connection for all that hear the tale. Such
is the case with the story of unrequited love in Shakespeares Romeo
and Juliet or of the struggle for human dignity in John Steinbecks
The Grapes of Wrath. These classic stories touch our hearts and our minds,
as they describe the feelings and desires that we all share.
We are captured and enthralled by the famous words, as they take us on
an emotional ride from beginning to end. But storytelling neednt
be limited to the page. Sir Winston Churchill and President John F. Kennedy,
just to name a few, had a flair for motivating through words. And today,
business leaders model themselves after these great orators of the past,
as they recognize the considerable power in a well-crafted speech.
This summers session of Goizueta Plus, a
seminar series that enhances leadership, communications, and technological
skills, featured a lecture titled The Art of Storytelling,
led by Nancy Neill, president of the business communications firm Atlanta
Communications Group, and Steve Beshara, president of the brand consultancy
firm Vista. Creating good stories is a discipline, says Neill,
one that is now essential in the business world. Marketers use a story,
in the form of advertising, to brand a product. Corporate leaders deliver
entertaining stories that highlight their company strategy. A sales team
listens to compelling testimonials or other first-hand accounts of customer
Neill says that to build an effective story, you first need to think of
narrative structure, starting with a situation, then a problem erupting,
and finally the resolution. She credits a move away from an authoritative
style of management toward a participatory one as part of the reason for
a rise in the interest in storytelling as a communication technique. Beshara
says, Corporate leaders who successfully employ corporate storytelling
need to strike an objective balance between the emotional and intellectual
elements. By telling a credible and defensible story that includes
a dramatic conflict complete with opposing forces, a corporation is explaining
a legitimate struggle that earns respect and gains favor.
Rallying employees with stories
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, knew how to turn a phrase
better than almost anyone during his time at GE. He is quoted as saying
such things as, The Internet is the Viagra of big business.
By telling engaging stories that describe company strategy or give a window
into a business concept, information can be trickled down into palatable
and memorable morsels for employees and shareholders alike.
Storytelling also can serve to enthuse and enlighten. H.
James Dallas 94EMBA, CIO of Georgia-Pacific, maker of
tissue, pulp, paper, packaging, building products, and related chemicals,
uses the technique to motivate company employees, bringing the tale down
to the most personal level. He notes, When I first became president
of the lumber division, I held town hall meetings at every mill. The overall
point I wanted to get across was everyone makes a difference.
To illustrate one particular point, Dallas told Georgia-Pacific employees
a story of when he was much younger and working as a janitor at the Pepperidge
Farm plant in Aiken, S.C. He noted to the staff, My job was to clean
all of the flour and dough out of the machines so that bugs wouldnt
form. Ernie, the plant manager, would take the time to tell us how important
our jobs were.
He explained that if bugs got in, it would cause quality problems, leading
to people not buying our products, resulting in the company losing money,
and people losing jobs. Twice a year, OSHA would come in and do an inspection.
If we got a grade of ninety-five or higher, Ernie would personally serve
us steak dinners. His actions made me think of myself not as a janitor,
but as a key part of our companys success.
Bridging the great divide
Besides a motivating factor, storytelling can serve as a bridge between
employees and company executives. It also can act to rally the troops
together in a particularly difficult stage in the companys existence.
Any significant initiative requires understanding and inspiration
from beginning to end, says Dallas. Leaders have to touch
both heads and heartsyou touch the heart and the head will follow.
PowerPoint slides loaded with reasons touch the head; stories loaded with
personal experiences touch the heart.
The recent rash of corporate scandals also has left the public and company
employees a bit shell-shocked and distrustful of corporate leaders. Dallas
sees storytelling as an effective way to re-energize and renew corporate
relationships. He notes, People found out that they didnt
know their leaders as well as they thought they did. Effective storytelling
creates that connection and answers the question of, Why should
I listen to or follow you? Stories start forming a common bond because
everybody has a story and one story builds on another.
Alan J. Lacy 77MBA, CEO of retailer
Sears, Roebuck and Company, says, Stories are where concepts and
values are played out in real-life situations. Well-told stories are vivid
and ask us to accept or change behaviors. They are also entertaining;
we remember stories. For retailers, like Sears, identifying customers
needs are paramount in establishing an effective marketing image or a
story upon which to build a successful brand. Customer research identifies
the typical Sears shopper, and advertising is created for that market.
With families the primary shoppers in the store, it makes sense
to produce commercials featuring typical Middle American families,
Tugging at heartstrings
To be a successful storyteller in the business setting, says Molly
Epstein, team leader of the management communication department
and assistant professor in the practice of management communication, first
you have to center on and determine what you are trying to communicate
to your audience. It has to be concise.
But it also has to be meaningful and appropriate for the group it is trying
to reach. For example, Epstein says marketers are now using the
idea of heritage to appeal to U.S. consumersfrom Harley Davidson
repositioning itself as an American bike to Ford Motor using
still images and old recordings of the companys founder, Henry Ford,
to invoke a sense of nostalgia into the mix. Epstein says that the same
baby boomers who were once protesting the Vietnam War and gender roles
in the late 1960s are now the same individuals responding to these heritage
ads. Getting a handle on the inevitable shifts in customers interests,
tastes, and preferences is essential.
Its the lasting impression that the story can convey which makes
it such a popular communication technique in advertising and marketing.
Reshma Shah, assistant professor in
the practice of marketing at Goizueta, adds, Marketing and storytelling
share a common objective: to compellingly communicate a messageabout
a company, a product, or a brandto achieve a particular response
from the intended audience. If one considers the promotion surrounding
several popular brands of clothing, a number of stories emerge that represent
the brands positioning over time. For example, the Tommy Hilfiger
brand embodies stories of friends enjoying time together. Levis
tells the story of independence and strength. The Gap is about body and
soul and the freedom of spirit, while Brooks Brothers represents tradition
Obviously, marketers have long spun tales to sell a product or service.
Branding relies strongly on storytelling, with the product as hero
or timesaver, says Epstein. A good commercial tells a story.
Centering on a typical experience, such as being a member of a family
or working in a team toward a specific goal, can create an underlying
theme that the audience can easily identify with and remember. The key
is in finding the heart of the storysomething that can be translated
effectively in a minimal amount of timein order to quickly engage
the intended audience.
Certain common experiences immediately evoke an audience reaction. Marc
Adler 95BBA-96MBA, CEO for Macquarium Intelligent
Communications, an interactive strategy and development firm, says, We
recently assisted a large financial institution in overhauling its web
site, to make its services better address their relevance for prospective
customers. We used life milestones to incite site visitors. From buying
a first car or saving for your sons college education to getting
married and financing a new home; we used stories with heart that touched
customers and in a personal way explained the benefits of doing business
with our client.
Build a better mousetrap
It sounds so simple: Build a story, and the customers will beat a path
to your door. However, capturing an audience and using market research,
employee progress reports, and other company data to your advantage takes
skill and effective communication across all levels of the organization.
The company not only has to capture its customer data effectively, it
also has to filter the information out to the highest reaches of the organization.
Sears Lacy credits his time at Goizueta for teaching him the power
of acting as a team and the necessity of building a good organization.
He notes that teamwork and communication help cut across those various
pockets of the organization.
While the information behind a story may come from a variety of sources
throughout an organization, at the end of the day, the companys
top executive needs to be adept at translating that information to customers,
clients, and employees. Corporate leaders now find themselves inundated
with opportunities to speakin essence, serving as the public face
of the company. Web sites archive the speeches of the company CEO. Twenty-four-hour
cable news channels and a litany of media outlets trail corporate leaders
with the furor of the paparazzi chasing a rock star. Shareholders demand
more company information than ever before. Storytelling offers the corporate
leader the flexibility to respond to a shifting audience.
Show me the money
When a company is looking to take its business to the next level, being
able to sell the company to investors also requires the very
best storytelling skills. Shane Jackson 00MBA,
president of NextStart Capital, a venture capital firm, notes, You
have to have an ability to tell the story of your company and to relate
that to people. Of course, a strong business model has to be at
the heart of any pitch to venture capitalists. Nevertheless, Jackson notes,
The emotional side of it is important as well. Investors have to
believe that company management is going to do what they say they are
going to do. Storytelling can provide that impact.
It would be easy to get lost in the shuffle of the many businesses competing
for the almighty investor dollar. Luckily, an entertaining or engaging
story can help delineate your strategy, your idea, or your product or
service from the masses. Epstein notes, You generally start with
a situation, conflict, and then a resolution. The story should clearly
and dramatically illustrate the point, with the audience feeling empathy,
excitement, or some other emotion along the way.
However, in a high-tech world of corporate presentations dominated by
PowerPoint and streaming video, a return to what some might call a primitive
form of communication almost seems out-of-place. Epstein disagrees, noting
that the reliance on storytelling is a backlash to the more impersonal
and technology-driven presentations. She adds, A story focuses the
audience on the presenter and his or her ability to engage the audience
through the power of language, drama, and presence. The presenters
voice, facial expressions, and connection with the audience ensure that
they are paying attention. Once they are riveted on the presenter, he
or she has a greater opportunity to persuade.
Seeing opportunity in difficulty
The adage goes, What doesnt kill us, makes us stronger.
The phrase certainly applies to business. If a company is lucky enough
to survive a serious business hurdle, the key players can look to move
on and improve the business by relating the gory details of the customer
service faux pas or the gigantic shipping error. In a session with the
sales force, if the team manager merely waxes philosophic about the loss
of a big account, laying out employees along the way, the speech is sure
to fall on deaf ears. However, if a manager can craft an interesting story
with a specific beginning, middle, and end, moving from situation to conflict
to resolution, then he or she is more likely to keep the intended audiences
Lynne G. White 99MBA, a global
program manager of the capability development program for junior strategy
consultants at Accenture, a management consulting practice, admits that
a good story often can soften the blow of bad news. She notes, Consulting
is about developing trusted advisor relationships with clients. While
the research and analysis have to be impeccable, how it is conveyed makes
all the difference, especially when the findings are controversial.
White recalls a past client project for which her department conducted
an organizational assessment. It was a sensitive situation because
we didnt want to alienate the front-line people, and yet the organization
needed to make some major changes. We started our presentation with a
history lesson on how the organization had evolved over time. This explained
why the current inefficient processes existed and opened a dialogue to
discuss other ways they could be organized.
For those that worry storytelling is merely another way for marketers
and company leaders to pull the wool over the eyes of employees and consumers,
they are mistaken. Most can easily see through a story that is merely
flash over substance. Storytelling is meant to be a constructive communication
technique and a way to convey information in a memorable and engaging
manner. Says White, Anyone can do an elegant qualitative analysis,
but if you cant position that analysis in a way that can hook the
audience, make them understand the context, why they should care, and
compel them to action, it doesnt matter how great the analysis is.
Georgia-Pacifics H. James Dallas weaves storytelling into every