The Importance of Storytelling

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Ellen Munds is executive director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. Ellen Munds is executive director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana.

Telling the story of your business is harder than it sounds, right? You think to yourself, Oh, I can do that. But when it comes down to it, most of us get stuck, asking ourselves What IS the story of my business? What story am I supposed to tell? What if I don’t think it’s an especially interesting story?

Storytelling is one of the current buzzes in marketing. Your competition is doing it. Your business partners are doing it. And research tells us it makes a difference because people relate to stories.  People connect through stories.

Granville Toogood, author of The New Articulate Executive, says that when we’re reading data, reports, product specs, etc., we’re working out of our "conscious mind."  That’s good.  We need to do that to make good decisions. But if you and your competitor present equally compelling data about what you offer, what will make us buy from you? The organization that wins us over is the one that gets us into our “primal mind”. Our primal mind is the part of us that responds out of our deep likes, dislikes, and gut feelings.  The only way to get to a person’s primal mind is through story.

Neuro-economist Paul Zak adds that when we encounter stories, our levels of cortisol and oxytocin increase.  The cortisol makes us more attentive and the oxytocin makes us more sympathetic.  So if you want people to pay attention to your business and feel sympathetic to your cause, you need to tell stories!

A story…a compelling story…how do we do that?

For years journalist have taught us the five “w’s” of reporting: who, what, why, when, and where.  That’s terrific for a report and may even work for a white paper that appeals to the conscious mind.  But it’s not a story that will appeal to the primal mind of your best customers or clients.  Ditch the journalistic effort – let’s tell a story.

The first challenge is figuring out what the “story” of your business really is.  This decision requires an in-depth process of systematically reflecting on the significant events and happenings of your business; recalling significant turning point moments in creating your business, re-creating your business, or overcoming challenges within your business; prioritizing which events and happenings need to be shared, for what purposes and with whom; strategizing on the results you desire from the telling of your stories and the audience you want to reach.

Let`s consider an example: Assume you, Jack Handy, are the second generation owner of Trinity Manufacturing company, which today is the number one provider of plastic casings for small devices…hardly sexy and not reaching anybody’s primal mind at all.  Yet you know you need to better connect with industry leaders in thermostats and other devices.

You know you need to tell the story, but you are merely a plastics manufacturer – not exactly Oscar-winning story material. In fact, what stories could or should be told?

So you get your leadership team together to figure it out. At the meeting, you all find yourselves having a fun time talking about how your dad started this company 55 years ago, in 1960 when you were 13 years old, standing in his office, swinging your baseball bat just like he told you NOT to.  You and your team all laugh as you recall that moment when the bat hit the round metal thermostat and sent it soaring into 2 glass awards and right through the window.  Your dad was holding one of his plastic coffee cups at the time and thought to himself, Just think how inexpensively we could protect our workplaces if we used more plastic!  And there it is, the origin story of Trinity Manufacturing.

As the team keeps talking, suddenly they’re into a conversation about the fuel crisis of 1970.  Everyone remembers those horrendously long lines at the gas station and what a struggle it was for Trinity as the costs of shipping and delivery resulted in a layoff of three quarters of the team and nearly shut the company down.  A few folks in the room remember how painful the layoff conversations were and how your dad and two others, Dan and Watson, holed themselves up in the board room, agreeing they wouldn't leave the room until they came up with an idea that would keep them from having to lay off any other employees.  There they sat for 16 hours until, finally, Watson said, "We’re nothing without our people, and it’s worth us downsizing our plant and taking a pay cut."

Upon hearing that story, the younger employees on the leadership team seemed to have a whole new energy and appreciation for Trinity Manufacturing.  In fact, two or three of them started talking about the time Honeywell came to them to solve a thermostat design problem, and how that turned the business around in the most recent recession because of the praise Honeywell gave Trinity at the trade show in 2010.

Suddenly you, Jack, realize that you have lots of great stories about your company that need to be told.

What are the compelling and influential stories of your business? The next time someone asks you, or any of the people on your management team, “What does your company do?”, will you tell a story which influences that person to spend more time with you? Or will your story be the same, non-memorable word salad shared by every other generic worker in the room? Hmmm, wonder what your employees and consultants are saying about your company?

Ellen Munds is executive director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana.

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