Storytelling: Not just a good old practice

“The mistake people make is thinking the story is just about marketing. No, the story is the strategy. If you make your story better, you make the strategy better,” said a venture capitalist. Here’s why every business needs a storyteller and how to identify the right one

Harsh Pamnani
Updated: May 12, 2022 06:50:48 PM UTC
To drive some action, a storyteller has to tell the audience what the current state is, why it is insufficient, and paint a picture of the promising future state. Image: Shutterstock

The human brain likes to structure, store, and recover information in the form of stories. Maybe that's why tales of different Gods, kings, leaders, and animals are used to shape behaviours, cultural norms, and core values in children. These days storytelling has also become an essential skill in the business world. Stories work in business because audiences may not want to hear hard facts, but they give attention to the information communicated through stories –which also establishes an emotional connection.

Let me give you an example. If a company says, we have excellent customer service, then customers will not feel anything special. But, if the same company shares stories of its customer intimacy, then the audience will internalise that the company will do anything for its customers. Consequently, the company's fame for its excellent customer service will rise, loyalty from existing and new customers will increase, and profits will grow.

Just in case you are not leveraging stories for your business, by now you would have realised the importance of storytelling and might be planning to engage a storyteller. But remember one thing, the way you prefer a specialist doctor over generalists to treat health complexities, you need a business storyteller rather than a general content writer to craft a meaningful business story. Let me share with you a few tips that would help you to choose the right fit:

Intellectual curiosity
External storytellers would not understand your business the way you know it, but do they have the interest to know about your business? Have they tried to know more about your business through media articles, website content, YouTube videos, and such? Do they showcase the desire to learn more about your business when they meet you? Suppose a storyteller doesn't have an open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity. In that case, they might not be able to figure out the context behind the circumstances, and there is no exciting story without context.

Business understanding A business story is not about a controlled creative world; it is about the uncontrolled real-world where various factors such as business models, industry trends, organisational culture, and competition in the market influence the story arc. A storyteller would need to gather accurate facts and convey a fair and reliable context of them. If you don’t want an inconsistent or superficial story, then look for some domain expertise and not just excellent writing skills in a storyteller. To help you visualise, let me give you a few examples of the background of people behind some famous business stories. Nearly 80 percent of cases used at business schools worldwide are developed by Harvard Business School faculty. The author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone, is senior executive editor of the global technology group at Bloomberg News. Jim Collins, the author of books like Good to Great, has a background in consulting with McKinsey and teaching at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Knowledge of story structures
There can be business stories around multiple scenarios such as a market leader defending its market share, a start-up battling with a market leader, culture building/transformation of an organisation, the social impact made by a company, how a business managed to weather tough economic times, how a business came up with a new market strategy and so on. A good story is not just a chronology of events; it weaves events into a well-crafted structure. In his book on storytelling, Christopher Booker has beautifully explained the seven basic plots for stories – overcoming  the monster, rebirth, quest, rags-to-riches, voyage and return, comedy, and tragedy. An experienced storyteller understands the structures of various types of stories and applies them according to the scenario.

Ability to connect the numbers and narratives
Numbers bring credibility to a business scenario. But, it is hard for the audience to look at the numbers and make sense of them. So, a storyteller has to frame context around numbers and make them understandable. Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University, once mentioned that he valued Uber at around $ 6 billion in June 2014. His entire valuation was built around his story about Uber being an urban car service company. However, one of Uber's investors, Bill Gurley, told him that Uber is not a car service company, it's a logistics company. Then, Gurley said Uber is not just urban, it is going to be everywhere. As the words describing the business changed, valuation increased significantly. If you want to look for the live examples of storytellers using numbers with narratives, then watch the characters of Peter Brand in the movie Moneyball and Larry the Liquidator in the movie Other People's Money.

Audience understanding
To drive some action, a storyteller has to tell the audience what the current state is, why it is insufficient, and paint a picture of the promising future state. Usually, customers are interested in how your products and services will add value to their lives, investors are interested in knowing how you will generate revenue and profits, and employees are interested in their work-life balance, salary, and job security. If you give them just the information, they might forget it the next day. But if you provide them with a story, they will tell and re-tell others. A storyteller starts with a deep understanding of your audience and ensures that the story is meaningful to them. Sometimes storytellers come up with several mini-stories to pull the audience in and help them understand why they should care before diving into the main story.

Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, says, “The mistake people make is thinking the story is just about marketing. No, the story is the strategy. If you make your story better, you make the strategy better.” He believes that if you take the time to refine your story, you refine your thinking and the company's strategy. If your strategy is essential, then the storyteller working with you on your business story is also vital.

The writer is an author of 'Booming Brands' and co-author of ‘Booming Digital Stars’. 

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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