In 2016, I gave a talk on business storytelling in Switzerland at the invitation of the Swiss Finance Institute. The auditorium was packed, and the audience seemed satisfied.
But afterwards, one attendee approached me to say, “Storytelling seems useful, but it also sounds so much like some BS marketing ploy that Americans have come up with.”
I must have failed to convince this person. But ever since, I’ve been curious about how storytelling is practiced and perceived around the globe. After all, I’ve seen storytelling’s usefulness when my clients apply it in countless industries for a range of purposes in contexts around the world.
Recently, fellow business storytellers from six different countries shared their experiences with me. Here are their top insights.
1) The Foundations of Storytelling Will Vary. Understand them.
To understand a business, we learn its origin story. Same thing with storytelling. We can reach our audience better if we understand what the history of storytelling has looked like in their context. Then, if we can subtly incorporate these influences, our stories will feel “right” to our audience.
“In Russia the roots of storytelling hide deep in literature tradition,” says Artem Mushin-Makedonskiy, story gatherer and board member of the Storytelling In Organizations group of Russia’s National Storytelling Network. “Folk tales and major authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are strongly associated with storytelling today.”
Graham B. Williams, South African executive coach, neuro-linguistic practitioner and author, notes that storytelling has always been prominent in South Africa. He points to the rock art, metaphors, poetry, songs and stories of the indigenous Khoi-San. The Khoi-San say that “story floats from afar on the wind,” explains Williams. “Stories are like the wind which was once a man.”
2) Awakening to Business Storytelling Takes Time.
In South Africa, “story is part of our DNA,” notes Williams, “yet much of the modern business world is only beginning to be awakened to the rich contribution that story… can make in many areas.”
Business Storytelling Coach Soundari Mukherjea, based in Hong Kong, says that although the finance industry is the mainstay in Hong Kong and tends to “focus on numbers, IPOs and balance sheets,” she’s seeing “an uptick” in business storytelling now, “with the increased focus on the 3 Cs: Connection, Communication and Clarity.”
In Russia, Mushin-Makedonskiy says the awakening is also just beginning. “I wouldn’t say that storytelling has found a place in business at this point. In terms of business instruments and communicative trends Russia is 10, 15, or 20 years behind the USA and Europe. But the wave of storytelling is slowly rising thanks to TED Talks and international companies adapting Western trends.”
“Storytelling” has become a business buzzword in Russia, says Mushin-Makedonskiy, “but not a lot of people know how to tell a story well for business purposes and many doubt that it’s ‘for them.’”
In the U.S., the business storytelling awakening has also taken time, says Jerome Deroy, CEO of Narativ. “We started our business in the US in 2000, and at that time, when we told executives about storytelling, they said ‘Hmmm, isn’t that for children?’”
Gradually, business began to adapt to storytelling trends that were first tested out in the not-for-profit world. Around that time, more and more businesses had easy access to promote themselves on the internet––and consumer voices were amplified as well. Suddenly, “one company’s word was up against thousands of consumer blogs who said otherwise. They needed to provide evidence beyond statistics.” Businesses also “realized their customers and employees were avid consumers of storytelling in all of its forms, so they endeavored to make storytelling part of how they communicated, both internally to engage their employees, and externally to attract their clients.”
3) Know why people resist business storytelling.
Business storytellers note several reasons why, internationally, businesspeople are slow to see the merits of storytelling.
Storytelling takes time. In South Africa, Williams sees “a business culture that values agility and associates agility with speed – ‘We have no time to waste on storytelling.’” Mukherjea sees the same thing in Hong Kong, where people say, “we know it is important but we don’t have the time for it.”
Storytelling is seen as “fluff” or “fairy tales.” When trying to persuade clients to use storytelling for data, Mukherjea often hears, “Oh, we deal in numbers and not in this soft, fluffy stuff.” In Russia, Mushin-Makedonskiy says the “stereotypical outlook on stories is that they are ‘fairy tales and lies.’”
Storytelling is seen as “not for me.” Williams hears the frequent objection, “‘Story belongs to the realm of performance and entertainment, and I don’t have those special skills that are required.’ The truth is that a story told from the heart is what really counts and is powerful.” Likewise, Mushin-Makedonskiy wants to prove that storytelling is a skill and everyone has a story.
Storytelling can be used unethically. If people have seen storytelling used unethically, they may be wary of it, notes Williams. Used wrongly, stories become a way to “coerce, persuade, manipulate and win, instead of as a container that carries wisdom and allows the listener to develop their own insights and carry out their own chosen actions.”
Storytelling makes leaders vulnerable. In the U.S., leaders tell Deroy and the Narativ team that “telling a personal story is too vulnerable and might make them emotional, which in turn will make them look bad.” However, he notes that “what we’ve seen in practice is the opposite of that.” Customers want to work with authentic companies. “They won’t buy your products or service without trusting you.”
Narativ worked with Matt Bahl, Vice President of Financial Wellness and Customer Strategies at Prudential, to share a very personal story about his father, who had no money in the bank when it came time to retire. He told this story in front of over 1,000 Prudential employees. “For the folks in the call centers,” Bahl told Narativ, “hearing a personal story connects to the work they do… it leaves them feeling that they are not just a cog in the machine.”
4) Learn why people do come to embrace business storytelling.
“The motivation comes from a promise of personal success,” says Anjali Sharma, founder of Singapore-based Narrative: The Business of Stories. “Whether that is a promise to make you successful as a CEO or make you the workforce of the future.”
In Singapore, she adds, leaders frequently have to transform their organizations from manual-labor based to digital. These leaders must “learn how to tell a very important story, which is not about technology replacing humans, but about humans supervising technology.” Failing to tell this story hinders the leader’s career. “Navigating the corporate world is tricky enough,” says Sharma. “Not being able to tell a story effectively should never be a reason for not achieving the career heights you deserve. When leaders learn that, motivation takes place automatically.”
Gabrielle Dolan, based in Australia, says, “the greatest motivation for people to adopt storytelling is that they come to realize that communicating in data and facts alone does not work.”
Dolan describes how companies came to realize their usual “values rollouts” weren’t working. In the past, they would simply paint a values statement on the walls of their buildings, or on coffee mugs, “thinking if people knew what they were, that was good enough.”
The problem? It wasn’t enough, and frustration quickly followed when employees didn’t “get” the values. “Many of my clients now embark on values rollouts by teaching their leaders how to share personal stories to communicate the values, which is one of the most effective ways to embed values and change the culture…you can’t do that with bullet points.”
In Hong Kong, Mukherjea has seen leaders embrace storytelling when given local examples. “It is great to hear about Steve Jobs’ examples but that is not relatable for us,” leaders would tell her after her initial presentations. “Don’t you have examples of local Hong Kong leaders?”
“That got us thinking we need to customise and localize,” she says, “so we started this video series called Handshake: Connecting through Stories (yes, when you could still shake hands). We interviewed Hong Kong leaders to share about their journey, success, challenges and failures. We immediately found the relatability went up.” Relatable role models lead people to embrace storytelling, she has found.
In Russia, Mushin-Makedonskiy has witnessed a similar phenomenon. “Whenever a person hears a non-Russian name in the story, the stereotypical perception is triggered instantly and no matter how good or useful the story was to the audience, its value is severely decreased. But this is an easy-to-overcome problem.”
5) Track the benefits they share.
“One of the biggest challenges with storytelling,” says Sharma, “is that you can’t really explain the benefits of storytelling, you experience the benefits of storytelling. For example,” she adds, “you can’t explain why a certain movie is good, you have to experience it.”
Across the globe, these business storytellers have demonstrated the benefits of storytelling to their clients.
Storytelling creates connections. Lydia Inboden, a fintech executive who was a client of U.S.-based Narativ, reported seeing how “storytelling transforms the relationship between a salesperson and their clients from a hierarchy to a conversation between friends.” It levels the playing field, allowing C-level executives to connect with everyone.
Storytelling advances careers. After a virtual Business Storytelling session this past December, a project manager told Mukherjea’s Hong Kong-based team, “‘Please continue doing what you are doing, we need more of it now.’ The icing on the cake came in March 2021 when she shared with us that she used her newfound storytelling skills at an interview and that helped her land a job.”
Storytelling engages new hires quickly. “When new hires come into a company,” says Deroy, “they are usually drowning in compliance and employee handbooks in their first week and have to meet dozens of people, many of whom they’ll never see again.” During this crucial period, employees must overcome steep learning curves, avoid costly “rookie” mistakes, and quickly absorb the company’s culture and values if they are going to remain engaged or even stay with the company, says Deroy. Storytelling transfers knowledge, he says, adding that Narativ saw one company cut the learning curve from six months to six weeks when they used storytelling!
No matter your context, read between the lines and include storytelling wherever possible. Even the busiest, most data-driven business leaders may not actually want you to skip the storytelling.
I absorbed that lesson when I was making one of my first pitches ten years ago for Leadership Story Lab. My audience was a U.S.-based investment executive. When I started my presentation, he waved me on. “Just get to the point,” he said. I took him at his word and skipped straight to the details about my training approach, format and cost.
Not long after, he declined my pitch. “I felt like I was listening to a bald person selling hair regrowth products,” he said. “You claim to be about storytelling, but where were the stories?”
Lesson learned. What I interpreted as “skip the stories,” really meant, “let’s get this show started.” Since then, I’ve learned to read potential clients and not be so quick to assume they will resist my storytelling–a lesson that can apply in any context.
The business storytellers featured here will present at the free “Storify Your Leadership” Conference on March 22 through 26, 2021.