Why Business Storytelling Matters (And How to Do It)

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About fifteen years ago, I was invited to speak at a university workshop on cross-platform publishing. It was my first time doing such a thing, and I was nervous. What right did I have to speak to such intelligent people? Did I have any relevant knowledge to share? Was escape still an option?

At the time, I possessed the best job title that I’ve ever had: I was the Manager of Worldwide Knowledge for Electronic Arts, an interactive entertainment company. And my job was as great as my title; I was tasked with capturing and sharing the insights, stories, best practices, and lessons of EA’s most talented artists, engineers and visionaries.

But did I convey my passion to that poor workshop audience? Did I share some of the amazing stories I’d heard from game legends like Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, and Sid Meier? Nope.

Instead I baffled the students with knowledge management theory and confused them with technical details of how we built a knowledge portal as a storytelling platform for business stories–all in an effort to sound smarter than I felt. Blank stares multiplied.

The workshop facilitator cleared her throat.

“Do you perhaps have an example of how cross-platform publishing actually helped the business?”

An example we can relate to, and that won’t bore us to death, please, dear God, is what she meant.

I audibly exhaled. I was released from my prison of pseudo-smartness.

“Grass,” I said.

We discovered, I said, that six different teams, in different studios around the world, were all trying to perfect the look and feel of grass in video games. The games were each unique, ranging from FIFA soccer to Madden football to Harry Potter. But it was clear that the rendering of realistic grass was a potentially shareable technology.

The solution, I explained, was to bring together 10 or 15 brilliant, quirky game makers in an intensive workshop that extended to very late night drinks, and to allow them to tell their unique stories of trial and error. It took capturing and sharing those stories on video, through onscreen demonstrations, in articles and blog posts, and by enabling online and in-person conversations, to ultimately jointly produce the best grass in games, to save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in duplicate effort, and to set a new standard for sharing knowledge.

They got it. It took a story they could relate to. Things got better from there. I got better from there. Time flew.

Just last week, in a meeting with that same workshop facilitator, who is now a client as well as a friend, we discussed the idea of implementing a knowledge management strategy for her company.

“I remember that story you told about grass,” she said. “Can you tell me again?”


The Benefits of Internal Business Storytelling

Storytelling gets to the heart of what you’re trying to communicate in a way that any number of memos, mission statements, and pseudo-smart-sounding theoretical bafflegab never will. And whether you’re striving for growth, for greater engagement, for innovation or transformation, or for just a little more efficiency in your operations, business storytelling can help.

Here are a few of the benefits of business storytelling within your organization.

Stories Beget Stories–And They Connect People, Too

It all starts with knowing your audience. The best way to do that? Talk to them. Listen to them. Let employees tell their stories. You can do that in person, of course. In the hallways. In your one-on-ones. Or ask questions and invite discussion on your company portal, allowing people to share lessons and successes. Or hold a Town Hall forum to allow leaders — and not just the bigwigs — to share what they know. Above all, in any communication initiative, allow room for questions, comments and actual conversation. Stories will emerge.

Storytelling Humanizes Your Business (And You)

Author Walter Isaacson, in his excellent book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, tells story after story of people collaborating and learning from what came before to create great things. What makes it so compelling is that those people, portrayed with self-doubt and flaws in character as much as with their genius, are icons in digital history, people like Alan Turing, Linus Torvalds, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. In Isaacson’s book, they’re also deeply human. Tell stories that share your human side. Be honest and transparent. Showing people that you’ve made mistakes, or have strong feelings allows them to relate. When people see your human side, they can relate to you–and will often become your supporter or champion too.

Connect To Something Greater

I used to teach a communications class for new entrepreneurs, and always began by asking them to tell me about their new business’ ‘why’ (I shamelessly stole the question from Simon Sinek’s The Power of Why). And I always asked them to take money as a given; of course money matters in business. The better question is why start (or run) this business right now? What is it about this particular business that’s going to inspire you? And is it going to inspire people to work for you? Please don’t make your company stories about how you met your targets in Q2. Tell them instead how–and why–you’re going to change the world.

Got Vision? Get Story

Storytelling is an excellent tool for leaders. As Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling notes, “it’s quick, powerful, free, natural, refreshing, energizing, collaborative, persuasive, holistic, entertaining, moving, memorable and authentic. Stories help us make sense of organizations.” He notes, too, that while charts and dry facts may leave listeners bleary-eyed and bored, storytelling is simply, sometimes, the only thing that works.  “

Spark Change

According to an old story, Fred Rogers (long-time host of the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood) used to carry a piece of paper in his pocket. Written on it: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” Stories are powerful: they move us, they connect us, they can persuade us to lead or to follow, and they can prompt us to act. The old saying, ‘the personal is political’ is, I believe, true. And in a business context, as organizations try to meet the demand for innovation, or to grow with integrity, this is critical to keep in mind. One can’t easily ask people to change without showing them–in a way that resonates with them personally–why it matters.

Transfer Your Values Through Story

Your core capabilities, as an organization, probably include some blend of the following: the skills and knowledge of your employees, your managerial systems, and your company’s values. So how to consciously develop these capabilities? And how to ensure that they are being transferred through your organization to new employees as you grow and perhaps change? So much knowledge within an organization is transferred informally, through word of mouth, casual storytelling, and social interactions, and as employees simply observe what’s acceptable and rewarded (and what’s not) within your organization. As a business, you can make sure you know the messages you’re sharing, and the stories you’re telling by setting up mentoring, coaching, and organizational storytelling to develop your core capabilities.


How to Engage in Business Storytelling

Here are a few ideas for how to get started on your business storytelling journey.

Listen and Learn.

Create some kind of a forum within your business where you can listen to, and learn from, your employees. One company I worked for used to host a Friday afternoon Idea Exchange, where for 90 minutes you could sit and have a beer or glass of wine with the president, asking questions and sharing ideas. Another company I know, which has consultants all over the world, hosts a Town Hall style forum every two months, inviting three or four different people within the company to present on a recent challenge or accomplishment. Another is working on launching a kind of internal ‘Ted Talks’. The idea is simple: make the communication a two-way street, and make it clear that your employees’ voices matter.

Keep People Informed.

Your company has values, whether you have clearly stated them or not. (We recommend clearly stating them.) Share them. Share your brand story. Share your company history. Share your vision for the future. Simple newsletters can work wonders, as can in-person or virtual company gatherings focused around your core message. Even your externally-focused social media channels can help to transmit values, share messaging and build morale. Let your people discover their place within your brand story.

Just Do It: Tell a Story

Here at Echo, it’s truly all about story. Our weekly meetings begin with stories, rather than progress reports. At the same meeting, we invite everyone present to offer what we call ‘kudos’: quick compliments–usually accompanied by a brief explanatory story–about something a colleague has done to make life better either internally or for a client. And onboarding for us involves sharing stories that reflect our company’s values. The stories shared are often funny, sometimes touching, and almost always reveal something about the teller, as well as the organization–which we learn from as much as the new employee.

It’s all good practice in the ongoing quest to tell a great story–and to connect with the people that matter to you.