Is storytelling an overlooked business skill?

To navigate hard times, a compelling story may be just what you need
The most successful leaders use narration to inspire their teams
Companies are no strangers to the value of storytelling. Marketers have long known the value of a simple story in persuading people to buy their products or services. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University, for example, analysed the content of more than a hundred Super Bowl commercials. They found that the more complete a story marketers tell in their ads, the higher it performs in the rating polls. People like commercials that feature the traditional dramatic structure – exposition, rising action, falling action, and denouement – its researchers said.
Stories evoke a strong neurological response. Neuroscientist Paul Zak has found that, during the tense moments in a story, our brains produce cortisol, the so-called stress hormone. In contrast, the emotional elements prompt the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes empathy and connection with others. But advertising is just one of the ways firms can tap into the power of storytelling. Increasingly, leaders are communicating their vision and gaining support for their strategies by becoming raconteurs.


While the hard facts or a well-thought out strategy can persuade people, a story is more effective in inspiring them to act. Companies can do this by creating a vision of where the business is heading, the challenges it will face and what it can do to overcome them – then tell that via a narrative, Martin Clarkson, co-founder of consultancy firm The Storytellers, told City A.M.
Take the example of casino developer Steve Wynn. He had already established a standard in style and ambience with landmarks like the Bellagio or Treasure Island. But when he opened the Wynn, his flagship resort to date, his goal was to take service to the next level. He wanted to “get everyone on the hotel to feel accountable for every customers’ satisfaction, and to make every member of staff to feel like they contributed to the client experience,” says Clarkson.
To do this, they created a corporate story to inspire all employees to put the customer first and ensure guests would “never want to leave”. To bring this main narrative into life, it was important to tap into smaller anecdotes that each employee could relate to. This resulted in the heart-warming story of a porter who went the extra mile to help a guest who had left important medication at home, by getting a friend to personally courier it to the hotel.


Firms can also use stories to gather support during times of change, like a merger or even a financial crisis. City National Bank’s chief executives, for example, started exploring narrative techniques just before the start of the great recession. “They had a sense that the crisis was coming, and they wanted to have a story that would provide structure and context to the tough decisions they saw ahead,” says Clarkson.
While they’re not a silver bullet, stories spark conversation about how staff can make a difference and contribute to the success of the company. Clarkson adds: “leaders who can articulate a clear, compelling business journey and gain momentum for that vision are the ones who will achieve extraordinary success in the years ahead”.

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