The art of storytelling

by Myra A. Thomas

“Communication is the only task a leader cannot delegate.”—Roberto C. Goizueta

Storytelling is an intuitive process—the 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 Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or of the struggle for human dignity in John Steinbeck’s 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 needn’t 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 summer’s 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 contact.

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 wouldn’t 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 company’s 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 company’s existence. “Any significant initiative requires understanding and inspiration from beginning to end,” says Dallas. “Leaders have to touch both heads and hearts—you 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 didn’t 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,” notes Lacy.

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. consumers—from Harley Davidson repositioning itself as an “American bike” to Ford Motor using still images and old recordings of the company’s 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.

It’s 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 message—about a company, a product, or a brand—to 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. Levi’s tells the story of independence and strength. The Gap is about body and soul and the freedom of spirit, while Brooks Brothers represents tradition and greatness.”

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 story—something that can be translated effectively in a minimal amount of time—in 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 son’s 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 company’s top executive needs to be adept at translating that information to customers, clients, and employees. Corporate leaders now find themselves inundated with opportunities to speak—in 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 presenter’s 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 doesn’t 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 audience’s attention.

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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 doesn’t matter how great the analysis is.”

Photo: Georgia-Pacific’s H. James Dallas weaves storytelling into every message.