For a number of years, storytelling in business seemed to be all the rage. A decade ago, I attended numerous leadership conferences, seminars and strategy workshops where some enigmatic speaker would have the audience completely captivated, as they unpacked the “three beats of the leader’s story”, or espoused the value of sitting cross-legged around our imaginary campfires to explore the mystery and magic of the storyteller’s art.
In leadership workshops, jaded executives were encouraged to re-imagine their corporate resume as a “leadership journey”, illuminated with moments of personal “epiphany” and hard-won “life-lessons”. As a welcome relief from the usual death by PowerPoint, storytelling seemed a rich seam to explore. I discovered at one workshop that almost all business and personal challenges could be better understood through some cleverly curated clips from a movie. Most memorably, through a deconstruction of The Shawshank Redemption, I learnt about true friendship, personal resilience, working under pressure and the enduring value of knowing a good accountant.
Some of the conference speakers were as extraordinary in the flesh as they were in the best-selling books they had written. Bear Grylls (broke his back, but climbed Everest before age 21), Joe Simpson (survived catastrophic injuries on a mountain, but made life and death decisions that haunt him to this day), John McCarthy (held captive in a basement in Beirut for five years, but emerged as man of great warmth and unbelievable tolerance) and Ellen MacArthur (solo-circumnavigated the world in 94 days, but emerged an articulate public champion of sustainability, before it was de rigour).
These days, though, if I attend a business forum, the inclusion of a storyteller on the agenda is now more likely to prompt a world-weary sigh rather than a standing ovation.
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The advertisers’ goal is to gain a momentary mindshare, a nanosecond span of attention, and the creative s
Technology has played
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On Instagram, a
Another thumb swipe and Facebook sends us photo-montage stories of our colleagues’ enviable holidays, our half-remembered second-cousin’s birthday and our pet’s best escapades. Not much room then for Melville’s 585 dense
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In its punchline and Bezos’ brief epilogue, there
Perhaps in Bezos’ wonderful tale there are some clues to how
For Guber, the story has to be true to the teller, sound true for the audience, ring true in the moment and be true to the mission the storyteller is trying to impart. If it’s not, we see right through it and never suspend our disbelief.
What a shame then that the best business
If these kind of business books were more nuanced and showcased the eponymous business heroes and anti-heroes more realistically, with many s
A helpful shift to a greater diversity of storyteller, different cultures, accents and outlooks shared mean we also must listen more attentively to learn
At London Business School, we sometimes build a small storytelling element into our Executive Education programmes. At its simplest level this might be in the way cohort members are encouraged to introduce themselves to one another, or at a more sophisticated level, it might be around building a strategic challenge into a compelling narrative that engages and excites others. We use expert facilitators, often writers themselves, as well as actors, stand-up comedians and improvisers to enthuse and build confidence. There are also some very simple ways you might use storytelling in your teams to make better sense of business problems.
Business models are not always very memorable. We more easily recall Star Wars’ The Force than Porter’s Five Forces. Why not use a familiar story (movie, or book) and get your team to think about a business challenge using a metaphor from that familiar tale? Rather than plot some actions from a hurried SWOT, ask the team: “What if you had Harry Potter’s magic wand and three spells you could cast, what issues, fixes or gaps would you choose to use them on in your business?” Get them to discern and rank their choices. Alternatively, use a film like Back to the Future as a launchpad to discuss what your organisation would look like 10 years from now and the actions you need to take for it to survive.
From day one with an organisation you will hear stories. The water-cooler gossip magnifies stories which get shared year after year. When I joined HSBC in 2005 the grandee Chairman was less remarked upon for his track record of aggressive acquisitions than his rather odd habit of turning out the lights on the upper floors of the building as he left late each evening. Even if the story was never true, the story told a deep underlying truth about HSBC’s culture and leadership, which remains, 20 years later; internally obsessed with the cost of everything.
Social media has become the new default channel for complaints, with users tweeting and retweeting frustration and annoyance when service standards slip, a plane is delayed, or a parcel is not delivered. People tend to have less time to post the good news stories; praising the people that fixed the problems. Several years ago (long before Twitter provided a real-time feed), Barclays produced an internal engagement campaign called Everybody Counts. It farmed hundreds of real stories from employees, customers, suppliers and partners about where people in the organisation had done things brilliant well for the customer. By exploring and celebrating these stories, it built both engagement as well as a better understanding of the real problems that absorbed staff’s time. These real stories were way more compelling than a management consultant’s dry analysis or process charts. The bigger challenge was for Barclays leaders; what to do with that powerful insight.
There is something both democratic (we can all tell a good yarn, right?) as well as refreshingly – and powerfully - human about exploring a business challenge through the format or metaphor of a story. Stories are familiar, memorable and easily shared.
Great stories cross borders and can be translated and adapted for different tastes and cultures.
They resonate more than business theory, purpose, vision and the features of a product or service.
In the words of Mad Men’s Don Draper, a “sentimental bond” with a brand creates a much deeper – and potent – connection.
John Dore is Programme Director on London Business School’s flagship Senior Executive Programme (SEP)