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Corporate storytelling: An essential leadership capability

If you are given the choice between watching a 60-slide presentation on the culture of a firm or listening to one story that captures the essence of the same culture, which one would you choose? The answer to this question is what makes storytelling powerful.

Storytelling is not a new phenomenon: it was at the heart of every ancient civilisation: the Chinese, Indian, Roman, Russian, and Irish all relied on stories to build relationships and common ground. Stories have lasted thousands of years and travelled across the globe with no help from any electronic databases, and stayed in the hearts and minds of the people who have heard them. Now, organisations are starting to tap into this power of storytelling for creating more engaged cultures and authentic connections with their workforces.

Stories are at once the collective memory of an organisation, as well as a map for their future. Stories that resonate with individuals will move them to action and become the rallying cry for creating a desired future.

The three most scarce resources for many organisations today are attention, engagement and involvement. Any company that can capture the attention of the market, get the commitment of an engaged employee, and the involvement of its clients will have an inimitable competitive advantage now and in the future.

Corporate storytelling is one of the most powerful tools available to leaders today to create engaged and involved relationships, both within the company as well as with external stakeholders. Corporate storytelling is about creating a narrative so powerful that the one telling the story and the one listening to it are compelled to move to action and to embrace a common vision.

So, what are some of the reasons that forward thinking organisations are treating corporate storytelling as an essential leadership capability?

Influence in the networked economy
The age of hierarchies is over. Organisations are fast-recognising that both innovation and execution move faster when tapping into the power of networks and communities. Leadership is not about a position as much as it is about an ability to influence and move people to action.

While a designation may be a necessary condition in some cases, it is certainly not a sufficient condition for influence in all circumstances. The traditional tools that leaders relied on in the age of hierarchies to influence people are simply not that effective anymore.

For instance, in a multi-generational workforce, younger cohorts tend to look for opportunities to connect to a larger vision than simply executing orders. Therefore, leaders today must engage the stakeholder – internal and external – through mechanisms that go beyond authority and position-based influencing.

Stories can be a powerful tool in these circumstances. The power of story transcends the power of position-based authority to engage others. A powerful story, told effectively at the right time and right place will enable you to influence and engage people behind a vision more powerfully than any carefully-edited 300-slide Power Point presentation.

Creating connections in a diverse and global world
Another challenge of leadership today is the ability to connect with diverse constituencies which are at once cosmopolitan on some dimensions and highly localised on others. To be able to navigate across the multiple and often nested identities of stakeholders, leaders must be able to tell and create stories that connect at a deeper level beyond labels. In other words, the ability of a leader to be an effective boundary spanner can be heightened through the use of stories.

The best stories that connect us all speak to the commonality of the human experience despite our surface level differences. When navigating differences – be they cultural or functional – using stories that reframe the differences by reminding the listener of the common goals, visions and aspiration can have a lasting impact.

When leaders share authentic stories, the trust created enables deeper connections and more open communication that would likely take years, if not decades, to get created. When someone can see themselves in the story you tell them, the differences become irrelevant. It therefore is imperative that those entrusted with the task of leading know how to create such trust through stories.

Narrative intelligence in the age of big data
While we live in the age of big data and analytics, what moves people to action is never numbers by themselves. Data presented raw has very little ability to create engagement or convey meaning effectively. We need to frame numbers in the context of where they come from and the impact they will have on the recipient.

Very often leaders get caught up in the technicality of their products or numbers to the extent that they are unable to convey with conviction the true impact of what they are selling. Data and numbers can provide information and some insight, but to get real value and wisdom from numbers, one needs to tell a story with them.

Numbers by themselves can never create the engagement of stories. Scientific evidence proves that the human mind is wired for stories through the phenomena of neuro-coupling. Brain scans of people telling stories and listening to stories show that for both parties it is similar parts of the brain that are activated. However for the listener, there is one additional part which gets heightened – that feeling of anticipation for what comes next in the story. This keeps their attention focused and heightens engagement.

In a world where organisations and individuals are suffering from information overload and multiple demands on their attention, to create such a coupling through stories is a powerful competency that no leader can afford to ignore. Next time, instead of throwing more numbers at your clients or employees try weaving in a story and a simple recall test a few weeks later. This will more than amply prove the point of what is more sticky. The leaders who are able to marry data with storytelling lead with both clarity and conviction.

Where does one begin?
While it may seem that anyone can get up and tell as story, the ability to harness the power of stories is both an art and a science. There are certain rules and roles of storytelling that enable the teller to truly get the most out of the corporate storytelling experience. The ability to undertake storytelling in organisations requires mastery of different types of skills, including: story curation, storytelling, story listening, story crafting, and narrative shaping. Each has its own subset and nuances that must be understood if you are to get the most from this powerful technique.

Corporate storytelling is one of the most powerful tools available to organisations today to create engaged and involved relationships within the company as well as with its external stakeholders.

Storytelling is not a communication strategy, it is a connection and execution strategy. One which leaders will do well to embrace.

Five techniques for mastering storytelling

.Story skill Key competency required
.Story .curation Collect and examine stories to select the ones with maximum impact. Sensitivity to the context of the teller and listener with an eye on the intended outcome.
.Storytelling Context awareness and delivery competency required. The best story will not work if not delivered in a manner than is true to the teller and listener.
.Story .listening Listen for the narrative driving the story. Enables leaders as a coach framework.
.Story .crafting Ability to draw on experience of self or others to craft an effective story that helps immerse the listener into the message that the story hopes to convey. Story crafting is both an art and a science.
.Narrative .shaping Using deep insights and predictive capability, a leader actively crafts the narrative that sets the direction for a group. Advanced skill.

This article first appeared in HRM Asia.

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