Claire Vane, Principal
Last week, we co-hosted an event with Question & Retain, (Q&R) the Pulse Check consultancy, on the subject of storytelling.
Humans have used storytelling for as long as we’ve had language; indeed, our survival has depended on it. It has helped us to create culture, connect and dissolve barriers, influence and persuade. Given our innate aptitude, do we harness the power of storytelling in the workplace? Do we use storytelling to help communicate our values, strengthen our brand, and win opportunities?
Q&R shared the results of its one question Pulse: Do you relate to your company’s story?
34%: Yes I do
28%: For the most part
22%: Some of it, but not all of it
11%: Not really
5%: Not at all
Annabel Dunstan, co founder, Q&R shared one of the many comments received:
‘The company has spent a lot of time developing their brand externally and so they have great narrative expressing the story. However, it is not clear to employees and is not being lived out on a daily basis. This means that most don’t relate to the story; they aren’t able to play it back, in order to truly become advocates of the organisation.’
‘This is something we have seen on many occasions in our work on measuring employee sentiment – a misalignment between the external and internal story.’
Our distinguished panel of professional storytellers showed how to use storytelling better to tell our own stories, both persnally and within our businesses. For those of you who were unable to battle through the snow, below is an inspiring selection of quotes from our speakers.
Lisa Lipkin, an innovative story strategist, believes that when creating a corporate story, a personal approach is always best, and that there is doubtless a way to connect the facts and the needs of your audience with what is emotionally important to the storyteller. In fact, she believes that in finding your company’s story, the best place to start is on the ground:
‘You must use the resource that is cheapest, easiest and closest to you. Start with a personal story, a memory. Everybody in your company has personal stories. The reason it’s such a great resource is that we know from neuroscience is that you remember what is most meaningful to you emotionally. Increasingly companies are coming to us not to help them sell, but for self-reflection. ‘What is our company’s story? How do we even know?’ By simply gathering personal stories, you can reveal to what is important.’
Lisa’s helps companies refine their story and ensure it is one that will resonate with their audience. Often, she finds their approach does not hit the spot. She says: ‘The biggest mistake that companies make is thinking that storytelling is telling an expensive branding agency what their story is. The key is to be comfortable with the unknown; stories have to unfold organically. You have to trust that the collective story of the company will emerge from the individual stories of your employees. You can’t know it upfront; it will emerge.’
Mark Borkowski, a publicist with over 30 years of experience of using storytelling as a marketing tool, shared his early experiences:
‘The one thing I learned when I became a theatre publicist is that you have no money, and I quickly realised that you had to find a story. The production with the best story would get the biggest audience. I was pretty good at manufacturing those stories; if you found a good story, people would talk about it.’
He is fascinated by the legions of storytellers that came before him:
‘When you’re a thrusting, arrogant young publicist in a theatre and stories are getting into newspapers and you have a full house, you get pulled up short. Someone said, ‘You should look into Jim Moran and all the people who did this before you.’ As a young buck I thought, what do you mean? I’m an original!’
Mark cites his biggest influence as P.T. Barnum, who at the turn of the century established the Great American Museum and three-ring circus, and is famously quoted as saying ‘There’s a sucker born every minute.’ Barnum knew that if he amazed his audience and gave them a simple story to tell, he’d have thousands of marketers working for him. Legend tells us that when his circus arrived in a new town before a show, he would take Jumbo the elephant to the poorest sharecropper and give the elephant to plough the field. When the rumour spread, the entire town would come to see this remarkable pachyderm plough a field and pass the story on. According to Mark, ‘there’s an atavistic longing for stories within our psyche, and by taking that story, and the wonder, he never failed to sell out a show. People are hardwired to want to know a story’.
But Mark acknowledges storytelling isn’t as straightforward as coming up with something outrageous, and that fake narratives never work: ‘Our biggest problem now as storytellers is noise; how do you cut across the noise? The bar now is so low, and to maintain publicity campaigns your story has to be so robust that everybody is engaged.
Mark’s theorises that six elements make a story newsworthy and successful. It must be:
and contain a touch of schadenfreude
Further, you can turbocharge it with three things: controversy, topicality, and celebrity!
James Blamey, former Global Head of Communications for Skype and Microsoft, talked us through the competitive environment in which Skype operates, and how storytelling helps them stay on top.
James is interested in research carried out in the 1990s by Robin Dunbar, a Professor of Anthropology at Oxford, into how many connections or relationships you could sustain as an individual. He concluded that you can have only 150 relationships with people; it seems a small number now when we think about the size of our social media networks. James argues that the capacity for us to actually engage – which is based often on gossip – naturally limits itself at 150 but communicating with a larger number of people can be achieved using storytelling. ‘People have learned to tell a story about a person, a city, a religion, a myth’.
He went on to say ‘The job we had at Skype was to find stories that would be relevant to our users, that would engage and encourage an emotional connection. We collected stories, and created videos telling them. This story of Sarah and Paige, two girls both born a shortened left arm. The story was authentic, we just had to bring it to life. We didn’t want to push Skype front and centre; the story didn’t need that. That’s how Skype survives now.’
You can watch the beautiful example of emotive storytelling here.
Overall, we learned that storytelling is an enormously powerful tool for reaching audiences, and for creating a positive feeling around your brand. It seems that storytelling has never had a more important role in business, and by working from the roots up, you can create a story that helps meet your business aims, makes you unique and gives a good chance of living happily ever after.
If you would like help telling your story, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org