Why we got hired (and why we got fired) for writing stories.

Recently, I was upset by a sneering piece Lucy Kellaway wrote in the Financial Times. In her opinion, there’s no role for storytelling in business. If you’d like to be upset too, it’s here.

She’s wrong. I should know. Last year, I made the same mistakes as her. It meant we were fired by a client. Always a shock, but this was a client that had only just hired us.

But before I tell you about that, imagine you’re head of publicity for the epic movie, The Revenant, and a month before you launch, you start reading headlines like this: “Leonardo DiCaprio describes filming that ‘bear rape’ scene” Or this one: “The Revenant director on Lenoardo DiCaprio’s ‘bear rape’…

What would you do?

revenant bear rape

What the smart guys at 20th Century Fox did was use a story to fight a story. They spread the rumour via bloggers that the bear was female. Job done. Everyone moved on.

It’s naïve to think that a female can’t rape a male. And a female 250kg bear can do pretty much what it wants. But that’s what’s so great about storytelling: it’s about moving people, not rationalising with them.

Back to our (briefly held) client. They’re an Italian supplier of IT products, and they understood they needed to move people. Every day, their salesmen are out in the field, flogging more widgets. Every day, their colleagues back at the office are thinking of new ways to promote the company. They wanted us to teach them how to tell stories. So why did it go wrong?

Our first mistake was failing to ask, “What do you mean by ‘stories’?”

We know what we mean by stories. But what did they mean?

There are so many different types of story – and not just the modern three-act epic. There’s:

Anecdote.

Fable.

Parable.

Confessional.

Fairy Tale.

Prediction.

Modern three-act epic.

It’s something that’s been neatly pointed out by Steven Denning, the author of the book, “Springboard: How stories ignite action in knowledge-era organizations“.

the springboard

Steven’s route into storytelling was accidental. He had tried for years to get his colleagues at the World Bank to change one particular behaviour. He tried rationalising the issue, giving everyone all the reasons why his idea was important, with no success. Then one day, he kicked off his presentation with a short story that talked about what a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia had recently done. Suddenly, his colleagues could see the picture. They changed their behaviour.

So, you might be wondering, what was the amazing story he told? It’s this:

In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia logged on to the website for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia and got the answer to a question on how to treat malaria.”

That’s it. I’ve read it several times and it never fails to leave me underwhelmed.

His point is: stories in business don’t always need to follow the modern three act structure with a beginning, middle and end.

More than that, in business you choose the form of your story to suit your goal.

Early in this blog post, I used a Confession. To support my case, I switched tactics again and brought in gravitas by using an anecdote (something that’s shorter, and more character-led).

If we’d been clearer with our client about what kind of stories they wanted, things would have gone better. But our big mistake was failing to ask, “What do you want to use these stories for?”

There are several different uses for a story in an organisation:

The most charismatic leaders have a Leader’s Narrative. You’ll hear them repeat it again and again. Their story often has a monster that the people in the company has to overcome. In it, the leader shows strength. And vulnerability. If you want to read more about this, take a look at “Leading Minds” by Gardner

president_official_portrait_hires

You can also use stories to change the values in your company. Good stories colour-in or illustrate a dry policy document. These types of stories can often be a parable.

And as 20th Century Fox showed, stories can be useful in taming rumours.

The truth is, lots of companies use storytelling. Johnson & Johnson has created an online database of employee stories.

3M constantly tells stories about how its R & D department faced several failures along the way to great success. My favourite is the pre-history of the Post-It note.

Disney uses analogy to teach new staff members at its parks how they’re meant to behave. Instead of briefing them for hours on every possible eventuality, they tell them one simple analogy:

Disney staff are ‘cast members’. So they audition for jobs, they are onstage when they walk around a park, not doing a job but being in a performance where the visitors aren’t customers but are the audience. This one simple story technique creates a cascade of associations.

But stories aren’t always obvious as stories. Perhaps when you joined your company, you were socialized into the ways things are ‘done round here’. Or you’ve been encouraged to observe some key values, just as the original founder of the company did (that’ll be The Founder’s Story.) If not, maybe you heard how the big hitters earn their bonuses. They’re all stories. And if you stop for a second and listen in on what people are telling each other at the water cooler, they’re all stories too.

The reason that stories are better than a list of facts is that a story is a list of facts told from a distinct point of view. If you can get your listener to agree on the viewpoint, you have more chance of them believing the facts.

It’s something that Lucy Kellaway could have known when she wrote her piece.

After all, if she knows her audience, she knows the influence on her readers of that famous hothouse of stories: Harvard Business School. Throughout its teaching, it uses stories. Or ‘case studies’ as they like to call them.

If you’d like to read some of our case studies, click here. If you’d like to meet Chris for a coffee and hear more stories of how we’ve helped train people to use stories, and how we’ve helped world-famous brands to transform their customers’ behaviour, email Chris now.