Tales from the heart are surprisingly effective in building a better bottom line.
My father, the late, great author Bryce Courtenay, used to say that inside every person was a book desperately trying to get out.
If he was correct, then the question is not whether we have stories, but whether we know how to elicit them from within and deploy them.
Stories are by nature emotive. They are meant to illustrate the otherwise inexpressible, to supply an emotional understanding that facts and figures, told dispassionately by rote, cannot provide.
It is only in the past five years that Australian businesses have come to realise the value of well-told narratives.
As one US storytelling exponent puts it: “Humans simply aren’t moved to action by data dumps, dense PowerPoint slides or spreadsheets packed with figures. They’re moved by emotion.”
Motivational speakers have used stories for years, but only as part of their arsenal to build momentary enthusiasm.
Business storytellers have a much harder task – they need their messages to resonate over time, whether to energise employees or sell a restructure.
To work effectively in organisations, the story has to come from the top.
“We encourage leaders to use stories not just in their presentations, but also in their day-to-day business activities,” says Gabrielle Dolan, co-director of business storytelling company One Thousand & One.
“We want them to use the technique in team meetings, in one-on-one conversations with employees and with clients and potential clients – we want people to be able to weave stories into their everyday conversations to help them achieve their business purposes.”
Dolan says this has nothing to do with spin or public relations. For maximum effect, every story must by nature be true and directly from the speaker’s own experience. Tall stories are worthless, she says.
Stories are mostly needed in the business context to help people really understand the messages, remember them and care about them.
To illustrate her point, Dolan – quite naturally – tells a story about one of her clients. Rosemary Reed, a risk adviser at NAB, felt she was getting nowhere in explaining to the bank’s business units that it was their job, not hers, to identify risks to the business.
She reverted to a story of how her mother taught her to deal with dangers on the family farm.
When Reed encountered a copperhead snake curled up next to her bike, her first reaction was to go running and screaming back to the house to tell her mother.
“But I didn’t … I played statues and, without taking my eyes off the snake, I very slowly walked backwards,” Reed says. “When I got enough distance between me and the snake, I turned and ran back to the house screaming.”
The moral of the story was that Reed’s mum had given her the information she needed to handle the situation. In risk management, she has a similar role.
“We can’t own and manage the risks when they arise. Our aim is to give you, the business, sufficient knowledge and tools so that when you come across your own copperhead snake, you will know what to do.”
Shawn Callahan, who runs business storytelling company Anecdote, says his idea to bring in stories for businesses came to him when he was working for IBM about a decade ago.
“We were doing stories that were more about telling the story of the business itself – what we term corporate anthropology,” Callahan says. “I began to wonder how we could use stories in a business context.”
Dolan and Callahan say the biggest impact stories have had on their clients is in recalibrating employees.
In working with a pharmaceutical company, Anecdote brought in stories about good and bad management, then used the stories to illustrate which behaviours the employees wanted to keep and which they might think of stopping.
“The stories started to change behaviours and we saw employee engagement improve exponentially over the next two years,” Callahan says. “People were willing to go above and beyond the norm to make change. It had a direct impact on profitability.”
In 2009, Ericsson Australia and New Zealand was forced to make cuts to its workforce (see breakout).
The company found that motivation levels of managers had fallen, as had employee engagement and customer satisfaction levels.
The company took the radical and expensive decision to train all 75 leaders in the One Thousand & One program across both countries.
Employee survey results showed that the leadership communication index rose from 57 to 75 per cent, strategy awareness increased by 11 per cent and motivation by 8 per cent.
Among senior leaders, motivation increased by 22 per cent. The following year’s sales figures also jumped significantly, as did overall profitability.
What business storytelling tells us that there is a strong link between emotion and bottom line profitability, but only if the story rings true and comes from a respected source.
If people believe what they are doing has a purpose – even a higher purpose that transcends their everyday working lives – they can themselves transcend their everyday working lives.
The science behind the story
Storytelling has always been influential, but is there any hard evidence about why it is so powerful?
Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says psychologists have looked closely at how they work.
Results repeatedly show that attitudes, fears, hopes and values are strongly influenced by stories.
It was also shown that fiction is a far more powerful tool than writing designed to persuade through argument and evidence, Gottschall says.
He cites US psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock, who found in their experiments that entering fictional worlds “radically altered the way information was processed”.
The more absorbed readers were in a story, the less capable they were of detecting false notes such as inaccuracies or lapses in logic.
It was not that a highly absorbed reader detects the false notes and doesn’t care about them: the fictions induced a state of total belief that would make a master propagandist proud.
The studies concluded that when under the influence of a strong story, [readers] were unable to detect the false notes,” Gottschall says.
This article is from the October 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.