Why knowing how to tell a story is a vital business skill

Photo: Disney Alice

Storytelling is an ancient form of engagement, enabling the storyteller to transfer information, share thoughts and beliefs and entertain by forming emotional connections with their audience. They’ve been told in bed and around campfires, recorded on cave walls and the pages of books, delivered in open fields and in church, and more recently have made their way to the office.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected business world customers are overwhelmed with brand messages from thousands of service providers leveraging many different communication channels to distribute their message. To cut through the clutter, sales managers are searching for ways to differentiate their products and services from a customer-centric lens and creating captivating brand or business stories is proving to be a compelling way of reaching key stakeholders.

Using appropriate business stories to share insights or ideas, to demonstrate capabilities or to spark reflection or action, can act as an anchor for customers and stakeholders, creating a defining moment where they can visualise their own situation. This creates mindshare; a strong emotional connection or positive affinity for ideas, individuals and their organisations. As a result, the impact of an effective story can help to build or reaffirm commitment to a product, brand or company and even alter purchasing behaviour, acting as a vital lever in today’s competitive marketplace.

To create compelling stories that elicit mindshare amongst stakeholders, those building the story must take the time to profile their audience and really understand their specific wants and needs and the specific issues they are faced with. They must know their audience well enough to choose relevant stories and deliver them in a way that will provoke a pre-determined feeling and prompt a desired customer reaction, with the aim of increasing participation, commitment, support or sales.

To be able to prompt these emotions and obtain the desired behaviour that follows, business storytellers must be able to create mindshare and commitment with customers by:

  • Demonstrating that they understand their stakeholders’ issues, processes, context and culture to build a level of rapport and trust
  • Using the right story at the right time to build strong and reliable relationships and confidence in their ability to encapsulate their stakeholders’ issues
  • Visualising the possibilities created by an emotional connection to start to alter beliefs and change mind-sets in stakeholders
  • Sharing the consequences and payoffs of either taking or not taking action to help stakeholders move forward in their decision making
  • Using stories to provide an example of re-framing an issue or problem to help stakeholders consider options or perspectives that they otherwise might not have considered
  • Understanding what others have done in similar circumstances to build credibility for the business leader and their organisation
  • Setting the scene before sharing new insight and ideas to put power behind ideas and their impact on business, customers, competitors, people and process
  • Putting life into abstract concepts to help customers to visualize what this means for them and their own context
  • Providing vivid evidence that their company’s products, services or solutions yield the promised results to reaffirm commitment or change customer behaviour

Using a business focus ensures that the story is immediately relevant to the audience, helping leaders to plan, prepare and develop a story that really drives desired outcomes. Once clear on the business focus those involved in the story’s development can select the appropriate content and structure to effectively engage the audience and direct outcomes.

To ensure that a story connects with stakeholders, it is vital to consider its different elements and how they will come together to deliver a cohesive, confident and authentic message as part of your overall value creation and customer engagement approach. Authenticity is key in engaging an audience’s sensitivities, and without it the most appealing of stories will go unnoticed, or even worse may turn stakeholders away.

In fact, the appeal generated by stories has proven to be more important than data and statistics in engaging audiences. A study of MBA students rated the believability and commitment to an idea, and found that when a story stands alone (separate to data and statistics) it rates significantly higher, highlighting the power of authentic storytelling.

To build an effective story, the teller should focus on:

  • Linking content to purpose: An effective story must have a clear purpose, which is linked to the broader purpose of the communication.
  • Compelling the imagination: Effective stories tap into people’s sentiments, emotions, feelings, empathy, and thoughts. It is important to choose situations that tap into people’s imaginations and create meaning for them. Facts and data do not induce the imagination, unless they are presented in a compelling by being backed up with anecdotes/examples and stories.
  • Connecting with others: Remember that people can see themselves in a truly effective story. This does not necessarily mean that they see themselves as the protagonist in the story, but that they can imagine themselves relating to critical aspects of the story.
  • Generating a new level of understanding: An effective story helps people create a new level of understanding about the topic; they think and feel things about it that they have not thought or felt before (or have not for a long time). Often, inserting a ‘surprise’ or novel idea into the story, will generate a new level of understanding.

Developing and telling business stories is a strategic process that requires structured planning and implementation. The skills that go into developing a story must be nurtured over time to build confidence and authenticity when positioning ideas within stories. The customer “mindshare” and commitment that results from well aligned business stories is not achieved by coincidence, but from leaders knowing their audience and the business outcomes they want to achieve by connecting with them.

The best stories can be re-used and re-worked many times over and mature in the telling. Critical to this process is the feedback gained from the target audience and other stakeholders involved in the storytelling process (colleagues and sponsors). It is the way in which this feedback is used to update the original story that will make it even more impactful, authentic and valuable, helping to build a library of business stories that will resonate with audiences and compel them to take action; this is when you know you have developed “mindshare” and secured real commitment.

So take the time to consider how a story could be crafted to meet your business’ communication needs and become a more effective way of reaching customers or stakeholders, rather than shouting to have your message heard.

Cynthia Stuckey is the Managing Director of The Forum Corporation in Asia-Pacific. Forum is a recognised global leader in linking leadership development and sales effectiveness training to strategic business objectives. For more information, visit: www.forumaustralia.com.au

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