Storytelling: time for a reboot

Once popular, storytelling in business has fallen out of favour. But the power of a human story is hugely underestimated


The backstory

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.

The alchemists

Advertisers and marketers used to embrace storytelling to sell their products. There were some wondrous and memorable moments where classic story themes were fused with brand campaigns  Apple’s ‘1984’ Mac launch (evoking Orwell’s dystopian vision) and Guinness’ ‘Surfer’ (narrating Melville’s Moby Dick) were each brilliantly done; smart, imaginative and thought-provoking.

Two of cinemas great directors started their careers selling colourful PCs and dark draft beer. 

Surfer’s director Jonathan Glazer went on to make Sexy Beast, with Ben Kingsley, described by Martin Scorsese as the best British film he had ever seen.  Apple’s 1984 was the breakout moment for Ridley Scott, who went on to create iconic blockbusters like Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian and the Academy Award winning Gladiator. 

The idea of the advertiser as storyteller par excellence may have inspired the writers of the TV series Mad Men, where its anti-hero creative genius Don Draper uses brilliant storytelling to pitch his campaign ideas.  In The Carousel Pitch, his heartfelt epithets and tear-inducing sincerity wow the executives from new prospective client Kodak-Eastman.  Draper’s successful pitch rescues his firm’s tenuous place among the big agencies on Madison Avenue. 

But like many of the best stories, there is, of course, a twist.  The real genius of the pitch was that for Don, it was nothing more than an act.  A charade.  He had left all authenticity outside in the trash.  I implore you to watch it and be amazed by the power of the master (and duplicitous) storyteller.  

I am less sure the advertisers of today use storytelling with such conviction or skill.  Their objective is not the memorable story retold, but the widely distributed meme or gif. The allegorical and metaphorical wit found in adapting Melville or Orwell seems to be seldom bothered with.  We are, without much ado, asked to Bet365, or Compare The Meerkat, or more simply, Go Compare. 

The advertisers’ goal is to gain a momentary mindshare, a nanosecond span of attention, and the creative solution is to treat the audience like kindergarten consumers, grasping for the screenshot-friendly marshmallows on offer.  The writer and cartoonist Hugh McLeod summed up the dumbed-down approach beautifully: “If you spoke to people the way advertising now speaks to people, they would punch you in the face.”

Death of the story - and who killed it

Technology has played a part in making stories both unbelievably easy to access and simultaneously too easy to ignore.  While we can readily access more than 30 million books via Amazon, we are a mere thumb-swipe away from the distraction of instantaneous stories of global importance and/or celebrity gossip, super-condensed into a few hundred characters on Twitter. 

Worse still, the long-form story version of the tweet starts with the soul-destroying tease “Thread”. 

On Instagram, a story is now described as “slideshow that allows us to capture and post related images and video content, so we share more of our lives with those we are close with”. 

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 pages.

TED Talks are the modern equivalent of storytelling.  In a puritanically branded event, an over-rehearsed speaker has up to 18 minutes to enlighten, persuade and inform – and hope that their nuggets of knowledge will be worthy enough to be shared by millions online.  Depending on your perspective, TED Talks is a medium that has either saved Western thinking and the promulgation of new ideas, or alternatively, it hasn’t. 

TED has created a whole industry of training, books, videos and professional tutors to help you Talk Like TED, Own The Room and Rock it Like TED.   Airport bookshops are packed with TED’s alum. 

As you’d expect, in the myriad of eclectic topics and more than 3,000 official talks now available, there are duds and some gems.  But one of the very best is just five minutes in length, one of the shortest TED talks ever shared.

The story is called Save The Shoes, or sometimes titled A life lesson from a volunteer firefighter, by Mark Bezos.  Like all the best stories, Bezos immediately ignites your imagination. His mode of telling has a theatrical wow factor. He seems genuine and authentic, making the story both personal and universal. 

In its punchline and Bezos’ brief epilogue, there is a sticky reminder of how powerful lessons can be found in real-life experiences and how great storytelling can still blow up a room. 

Time to reboot storytelling?

Perhaps in Bezos’ wonderful tale there are some clues to how storytelling can be made more compelling and fresher for business audiences again.   Re-hashing the familiar “heroic endeavour” now seems outmoded. A more authentic and humbler tale of ordinary achievement and learning could be more meaningfulFilm-maker Peter Guber wrote in The Four Truths of the Storyteller that authenticity is crucial. 

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. 

Authentic smaller stories of collaboration and partnership, of learning, tolerance and listening might trump stories of success hard-won through perseverance, fortitude and single-mindedness.  In business education we need more stories that illuminate real learning about innovation without the “hero” always being a man growing up in Silicon Valley grafting for 10,000 hours in a suburban garage to crystallise his cunning plan for global tech dominion. 

What a shame then that the best business book of the past few years, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, is merely a damning portrait of Silicon Valley ambition and hubris gone very wrong.

If these kind of business books were more nuanced and showcased the eponymous business heroes and anti-heroes more realistically, with many shades of grey – rather than as angels or devils – that could offer a better learning opportunity.   

A helpful shift to a greater diversity of storyteller, different cultures, accents and outlooks shared mean we also must listen more attentively to learn

Amid aggressive non-discourse via Twitter, spiky media soundbites and political put-downs, it might seem odd to go to politics to replay a story that might provide us with some clues of where powerful storytelling might find some inspiration.  But it’s out there if you take time to take a look.  Whatever your political persuasion, after taking a peek at Don Draper and Mark Bezos, I urge you to watch a beautifully told story about an unremarkable 60-year-old lady called Edith Childs.

On a freezing night in November 2012, in Des Moines, Iowa, Barack Obama stood before thousands in a town square on the eve of the election. With many hundreds of tales to choose from, after a long brutal campaign, Obama told the story of how Childs, whom he only met once briefly, was the “one voice that changed a room”, prompting him to change his outlook, his behaviour and his campaign team’s strategy.  If the story he shared doesn’t move you (even a little) then I guess the days of crafting human stories to inspire, energise and ignite others might well have had its day.

3 ways to explore storytelling

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.

1. Use stories as a way of exploring strategic 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.

2. What do you learn from the stories your people share about your organisation?

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.

3. What can you learn from the stories your customers share about you?

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.

Time for a reboot

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)

SEP-768X432 New

Senior Executive Programme

Elevate your impact, reignite your ambition and challenge your thinking with a programme designed to take highly accomplished senior executives to the next level.