Management consultant Jane Sparrow on why storytelling is an important skill in the workplace.
As a mum, I’m used to my daughter asking me for a story every night – it’s a precious chance to relax and unwind together and escape into a different world. My favourite of the moment is Spindles Best Jumper! But lately, the ritual of storytelling has been equally present in my working life as it is in my home life. In fact, in the past few months I have shared more stories about storytelling in business than ever before. But is there really a connection between reading bedtime story to a three year old and encouraging a room full of senior HR professionals to tell more stories? I believe there is.
You see, whether you’re a small child or a CEO, our brains are cleverly wired to think in story. Some believe it’s an innate survival mechanism because stories can show us the consequences of an action without actually risking it (“Don’t eat those berries – they’re poisonous!”).
Of course, CEOs and leaders may not be tasked with keeping employees away from poisonous berries but, in their quest to build performance, they do seek specific actions and behaviours from their people. For example, they might want them to be more creative, more risk-taking, more customer-focused.
CEOs, leaders and managers could just tell staff what it is they expect from them and throw in some processes to try and make it happen – but what works far better in coaxing desired behaviours and actions is to tell stories. Not just any old stories, but stories that bring alive the purpose, belief and values of the organisation and why taking a different or new course of action is the right thing. Stories, for example, that show the advantages of risk-taking, thinking differently about customers’ needs or re-framing what ‘being creative’ actually means.
Telling the right stories
One of my favourite examples I use is a CEO who uses the everyday analogy of how driving your new car elicits different emotions to driving a hire car. It cuts straight to the chase of what he means about his corporate value of ‘ownership’ and employees instantly connect with his message because he talks about the emotions we feel at the wheel of each car. Delivering an emotional punch is a great skill of a well-told story. He could’ve simply delivered a factual presentation about ownership but I bet no-one would remember past the first slide…
Not everyone is such a natural storyteller. I always make a point of using lots of examples from different organisations to show how people hone specific skills and strategies to become better storytellers. By embracing and practising these skills, even the most reticent storyteller can start to have real impact. Thinking of the right stories to tell is always a classic stumbling block – my advice is to start with what you know best: YOU. What insights can you bring, for example, from your own experience of dealing with a set-back or persuading someone to go with your idea? Shared experiences like this are a really powerful way of connecting with your audience because it shows that actually, you’re just like them. In my previous example, the CEO united with his audience through the shared experience of driving.
Above all, remember that storytelling takes practice. Listen out for those natural storytellers around you and jot down any useful stories you happen to hear or read. Use it for inspiration when you’re stuck with a concept or idea you want to get across. Out of all the information you impart to others at work, it’ll be a great story that they remember the most. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to read Spindle again ….