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.)

Make failure your friend

make failure your friend

Failure is one of those topics where there’s a big gap between knowing and doing. Rationally we know that it’s OK if we are doing our best, to fail, because by failing we learn valuable lessons that lead us to success in the future.

Yet, failure is not rational. Failure is highly emotional. Remember the last time that you failed at something that was important to you. How did it feel? Most likely it felt horrible. I know that if I’ve failed badly I almost can’t bear to talk about it and dissect it until a bit of time has passed and the pain has resided.

However, as Richard pointed out, it’s the ability to talk about the failure when you are still feeling it that has the potential to lead to the biggest learning. Like with many things its easier said than done, you need to have people to talk to in confidence about failure and work in an environment where you don’t fear the repercussions of failure.

Here are my eight take-aways from the interview

Make failure your friend and work on reframing your mindset on how you view failure. It’s not the enemy to be avoided. If treated with respect, failure can be your friend.

Tell stories of the failures in your organisation to help others learn. Tell stories to all your audiences, customers, supporters, internal teams. The learning from failure is more readily remembered and more importantly implemented as a story than facts and figures.

Set a BHAG. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This goal works best when it is organisation wide, however, if setting the organisation’s BHAG is not in your remit set your team one – or set an individual one. Setting a BHAG forces you to think differently. If your goal is to double sales you approach the task very differently than if your goal is to increase sales by 5%. A BHAG also shifts expectations. You are all working to smash your BHAG, however, if you fall short, it’s highly likely that you will have done better than the 5% incremental change.

Like Oscar Wilde said; ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars’

Give yourself and your team permission to fail. This is also easier when you have a BHAG. You can’t just tell people they have permission, you have to lead by example. For example, you might share learning from failure as a regular agenda item at team meetings. Everyone should have something to share, after all, if no one is learning from failure they are not pushing themselves hard enough to reach that BHAG. BHAG’s don’t just achieve themselves.

Go for a walk. The single best way I’ve found to clear my head, think straight and be more creative is to go for a walk. It can help you think through problems or if you take a colleague it can help you talk through problems.

With hindsight, Hindsight is a great thing. If I could choose a superhero power I’d be ‘Hindsight Hero’. EVERYTHING is easier with hindsight but we don’t have a crystal ball so the best we have is learning from failure. Your learning from failure is someone else’s hindsight – but only if you’re brave enough to share it.

Back to mindset. Start to frame problems in a more positive way. Rather than ‘This doesn’t work’ or ‘We tried that and it didn’t work’ ask ‘How might we make this work?’

And finally, construct your failure resume. List your career steps from the failures that have led you to where you are now.

The interview with Richard Turner can be watched at the Lucidity Network which is a pick and mix of online and offline learning and connection to a dynamic network of people that can help you. We’re open for new members a few times a year. Join the Lucidity Community Facebook group to get in the Lucidity groove for clearer thinking and better results and be the first to hear when the Lucidity Network is open for members.