Why storytelling is an important skill in business

Dreaming big and storytelling are an important part of being an innovator. Innovation, by definition, means “trying something new”.

We encourage would-be innovators to think big, break the mould and shout their ideas from the rooftop in order to radically shift the status quo and create measurable change.

However, the reality of “innovating” is easier said than done. You can’t expect anyone to like your new idea or any changes to systems and processes that you might propose. It’s particularly difficult if you’re up against an industry with a rigid culture of traditions, bureaucracy or stuck in the ‘way we do things here’.

So what can you do to get people on board with new ideas and inspire them to want to make change happen?

The power of storytelling

Many of the world’s best innovators and influencers are also some of the most accomplished storytellers. Martin Luther King Jr. famously roused the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with his legendary “I have a dream” speech.

Steve Jobs, the revered Apple CEO, was able to paint a story of his visionary future with the now infamous presentation that launched the iPad.

JFK painted a vision of sending a man to space and returning him safely to earth:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal… of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind.”

 Humans are wired to tell stories 

Storytelling skills are absolutely key to your ability to inspire and influence other people. That’s why we help innovators develop their storytelling skills. 

Storytelling is how human beings have shared knowledge for hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists have even shown that information learned through emotionally charged storytelling has greater memory recall. Stories inspire people. They remember them, they retell them.

For you to be an innovator, your ability to tell stories could be the difference between your innovation staying on the drawing board and making it to the market place.

The structure of a story

Are you trying to convince people in your organisation that there’s a better way – or at least that you deserve the opportunity to try?

The trick to getting the ball rolling is describing problems and their solutions in a way that captivates attention and encourages action.

Every powerful story is made up of key areas, as we’ve outlined in our five-step story structure below to help the listener, in this example, engage with the new idea of automated rent payment.

1. Setting the scene

Tell the listener who the story is about.

Give them enough information to make them care what happens.

Using a character reference or real human being helps, e.g. Irene is an elderly woman, too frail and frightened to leave her house after falling on some ice. She has to struggle to the rent office every week because there is no other way to pay her rent other than in person.

2. Describe the problem

The problem on hand is that a frail, injured senior citizen has no other option but to leave her house to pay her rent in person.

3. How the solution will change you / them?

If the payments could be automated, Irene could pay her rent easily without the pain and expense of getting to the payment office and standing in a long queue.

4. Paint the vision of the different future

In this context, the innovation (automated rent payment), has made the difference.

Someone like Irene and millions of senior citizens just like her don’t have to struggle to make it to the payment office, and she has peace of mind that her rent is paid on time.

5. Highlight how the listener has a role in making the better future happen

Consider the role your listener plays in the story. For example, if you are trying to persuade your colleague to support your idea, help them connect to the part they play in making the better future for Irene happen.

 Quick storytelling tips

Consider how you tell your story to others. Below are our top tips to get peoples attention and inspire them to get involved.

  • Make it about one person or a particular group of people –  people connect to stories of specific people on an emotional level, e.g. Irene, rather than stories of the thousands of people like her.
  • Make it simple, use simple language, no jargon or acronyms; your story has to be easily understood to be effective. A good litmus test is to consider if both your granny and a five-year old will understand it.
  • Think about your audience and what sort of story would appeal to their interests.

Lastly, and most importantly: you have to care!

If you don’t care about your story, it’s very hard to convince anyone else to care.

(Nancy Duarte talks a bit more about the importance of structure and passion in her TED talk.)

Customers generally don’t care about your story; they care about their own

‘Building a Storybrand’ – This is not a book about telling your company’s story. A book like that would be a waste of time. Customers don’t generally care about your story; they care about their own.

Such was the overarching message of the Lucidity Business Book Club’s book of choice for the June meeting.

Building a Storybrand by Donald Miller teaches readers how to simplify a brand message so customers can understand and act on it, be that for websites, brochures or social media. Although it is clearly a book written for a corporate audience, do not assume this means its content is not relevant for other sectors. Whether you’re a charity, a business, public sector or even a global movement – no matter who you are or what you are trying to ‘sell’ there’s something useful for you within its 207 pages.

The book is packed full of useful insight and gives readers a seven-part framework to follow. There’s also a very helpful section at the back of the book that helps readers apply the principles to web design.

The Building a Story Brand seven-part framework:

  1. A character…
    The customer is the hero not your brand.
  2. .…has a problem…
    Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems but customers buy solutions to internal problems
  3. …and meets a guide…
    Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide
  4. …who gives them a plan…
    Customers trust a guide who has a plan
  5. …and calls them to action…
    Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action
  6. …that ends in a success…
    Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending
  7. …that helps them avoid failure.
    Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.

Making your customer the hero of the story is easier said than done. A couple of our book club members said they felt a little overwhelmed with the recommendations in the book. Plus there was some debate among the book club members who work for charities about who should be the hero – the donor or the beneficiary. It depends on the type of fundraising and level of gift, said one, who suggested that perhaps the beneficiary should be the hero in low level asks and the donor in legacy and major gift fundraising. Another suggested that perhaps both should take on a leading role within a charity’s story, creating a loop that starts with the beneficiary and ends with the donor.

Likewise, there was discussion about the challenges of simplifying brands, particularly when an organisation has many products and services that offer many things to many people. However, as one reader pointed out if you focus on one message and communicate that successfully to a customer, and you’ll get plenty of other opportunities to talk about the other aspects of your work with them in the future.

Another message that hit home for one book club member was the need to have a clear and strong call to action. ‘If we sell passively, we communicate a lack of belief in our product’, Miller reminded us, telling us that we shouldn’t be shy but to make direct asks.

All in all, Lucidity Business Book Club members felt it was a useful book that was easy to read and digest. As one reader said, ‘I read in the bath as it’s the only place where there are no other distractions, and it didn’t require too many baths to finish it.’

Overall, there were three key takeaways for readers of Building a Storybrand:

  1. Your customer should be the hero of the story, not your brand.
  2. Keep it simple.
  3. Don’t be shy: make the ask.

Becky Slack
Becky is the lead for the Lucidity Network’s Business Book Club, a role she loves as it gives her an excuse to geek out on all the books she wants to read but would never normally get time to do so. When she’s not got her nose in a book, she can be found writing her own stories, starting conversations between interesting folk, or teaching people how to craft their own words that will inspire change and motivate action. www.slackcommunications.co.uk

The Lucidity Network Business Book Club is one of the member benefits of the Lucidity Network. The Lucidity Network is a friendly professional community, that gives its members confidence to manage uncertainty, practical training, learning and development to improve everyday performance, as well as insight, inspiration and connection to help them stay resilient even on the toughest of days. More information here.

Building a Storybrand: Clarify your message so customers will listen by Donald Miller is published by Harper Collins Leadership. www.mystorybrand.com