There are three important differences between corporate storytelling and the stories you tell around the campfire or read for entertainment. Corporate stories are created to serve a purpose. Although they can be very entertaining, they are not just meant to entertain. Although they can be riveting, they should not have a ‘surprise ending’. And above all, although they are fashioned to be memorable and repeatable, they must also be designed to put specific focus on an important behavioural or aspirational element of an organisation.
By now, we have all heard at least some of the research that confirms that there is little difference between hearing a story and living it. Most of us have also read that we are all hardwired to remember a good story. But corporate storytellers must go a step further and a bit deeper. Corporate storytelling inspires customers but more than this, it provides guidance and alignment for your team to build exceptional results and connection to the organisation’s purpose.
Anatomy of a Story
You can tell if a corporate story is a good one. Your team will identify and respond to it as it connects the key message(s) to something they have been feeling or seeing for a while. Management will get behind the story and not only believe in it, but they will tell the story, over and over. they will become committed to the story and the telling of it and begin to understand the amazing potential that storytelling holds.
There are several components to effective corporate stories and storytelling. Some, you will recognize from movies or books. Every story must have a likable character; someone (or thing) that strives to attain some higher purpose or desire. Every story must have some type of villain; whether it is an arch-enemy or something to be overcome. There must be a conflict or choice-point for the main character. The most important elements in corporate storytelling are the purpose of the story and the tag line that will stick in the listener’s mind long after the story has faded. Some movies have tag lines that have become very famous;
- “I’ll be back.” from all the Terminator movies;
- “I’ll have what she’s having!” from When Harry met Sally,
- “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” from the Godfather.
But instead of becoming the fodder for countless jokes and gags, tag lines in corporate storytelling are used to set beliefs or to anchor a desired behaviour that is reproducible and instantaneous.
What do I have to do!!!
A great illustration of the story’s power to guide behaviour came out of the blue for me. I was working with Rick Wolfe to codify Kitchen Table Conversations for moderator training. Of course, because of this, I would hear his stories over and over again. At first I found the stories entertaining and a bit fascinating. After the second and third telling, I started to remember the elements I liked the most about them and connected them to my past experiences. After the fourth and fifth telling, I started to become bored and, I have to admit, my mind wandered.
Months went by, more Kitchen Table Conversations were moderated, other articles and books were written. Then, one day, I was co-moderating a Kitchen Table Conversation that went completely off the rails. We had done everything wrong; a last minute substitution left us with a panellist who was not properly prepared; a beautiful question went awry as it turned to a burning question (tangent) that the panel and audience could not shake.
Multiple attempts to bring the conversation back on course, failed. Then I remembered one of Rick’s stories, and almost instantly, in a goodhearted and light’ish tone, I channelled Rick. “This seems like a topic that is really important to you. But it isn’t what we came here to discuss. Is there anything I can do to get you back on topic or should we stick with this?”
The happy ending is that the crowd, just like in Rick’s story, needed to discuss their burning topic. They walked away satisfied and energized. In fact, many of the younger participants classified the conversation as inspiring!
That evening, walking home along quiet streets, I thought about my many conversations with Rick and they reminded me of all the Sunday night stories at my mom’s dining room table. I remembered the laughter and tears; as aunts, uncles and cousins recounted tales of long-dead, but not forgotten relatives and family history. I remembered listening so long that eventually, I would put my young head down on the table and drift off to sleep; the voices becoming murmurs in my dreams of faraway times and places. As I walked along the empty streets, I finally understood the power of these stories; how they had guided me through tough times and in making tough decisions, all contributing to me as I built my story.
Rick’s story had done the same. From thousands of miles away, in a moment, Rick’s voice rang in my ears. It guided me to capture and name the essence of the issue. It allowed me to release my construct of success and focus on what was needed. This one story supported me to be the best Kitchen Table Moderator possible for those people – in that instant.
So come corporate storytellers. Weave the stories that will guide your team and colleagues to show the best of who you are to the world, and most of all, to each other.