How to harness the power of stories in your business?
I really believe that we must choose our words wisely. Over two decades ago, I was working as the ex-ecutive assistant to Shiv Nadar, the founder and Chairman of HCL Infosystems Limited. We had recently terminated the contract with our current advertising agencies and asked some of the big agencies to pitch for the account. Over a week, every single day, two agencies were scheduled to pitch to us and tell us how they would help to grow our business. I remember an incident that happened during one of these meetings. The CEO of one of the bigger agencies was standing next to the screen, at the head of the table, ready with his presentation. Shiv walked in, said hello and sat down. The agency CEO started his presentation by saying “Thank you very much for this opportunity. We have spent the last few weeks meeting some of your customers and studying the industry, and while this may not be the best strategy (or our best effort), it will reflect the direction we think we should take, for building the HCL brand”. And then just as he was about to share his strategy, Shiv stood up and said, “I have no time to waste listening to something that is not the best strategy/effort. Come back and present when you think you are ready with your best”. With that Shiv left the room. That is why I believe choosing the right words is extremely critical.
This is a story I was told over a year ago by Sukanto Aich who is now a Senior Director in Philips Lighting. A story so impactful that not only do I remember it more than a year later but also I am reminded of it every time I am preparing for a presentation or a keynote. This is what business sto-rytelling is about. Sharing experiences and anecdotes that have shaped the opinions we have. These can be experiences we have personally had or have read about. We call it ‘Little S Storytelling’. Very different from ‘Big S Storytelling’ like legends, fairytales or epics. These are stories that are long and require creativity in their making and performance in their delivery.
Many business managers I meet think that for their stories to work, they need to be big and grand and follow the complex plot line. Unable to mold their stories into this form, they then conclude that storytelling cannot successfully be used in business, at least not when it comes to everyday situa-tions. Or maybe only a few creative and gifted people can be storytellers. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Storytelling in business is about telling ‘Little S’ stories. A simple narration of real ex-periences we have all had.
Another belief that seems to be held by many people is that to be an effective storyteller, they need to be coached in the ways of the theatre. Indeed, there are organizations that espouse this and offer theatre training as part of a business storytelling induction. Again, this is not the case. Business sto-rytelling is about simple narration in a regular voice, usually brief and conveying a specific point.
Storytelling in business needs to be invisible
There is a reason for this. Imagine that you are one in ten people sitting in a conference room waiting for a very important meeting to start and someone in the room says ‘let me tell you a story’. Pause and think — what would be the first thing that would go through your mind about that person. Take a minute.
If you are like 95 percent of the 1000+ senior leaders that have gone through my workshops then your first thought would be along the following line — ‘Why is he wasting our time?’; ‘It’s time to be serious’; “What an idiot’; ‘Has he not prepared for this?’; ‘How long will this take?’ or ‘Why do I have to listen to it?’ Very few of you, the 5 percent, would say ‘Maybe he has a point’ or ‘I hope it is inter-esting’.
We need to avoid falling into this trap. And we can do that by ensuring our storytelling is invisible.
There are three things we must avoid if we want our storytelling to be invisible — too many details, the storytelling voice, and not having a business point. Let me demonstrate this with a story I often tell when I want to emphasize that little things make a big difference.
In 2007, during the Iraq war, a general stationed at a riot-prone Iraqi town, noticed that almost al-ways,4-5 hours before riots erupted, a crowd would build-up at the Plaza. He went to the town's mayor and asked him whether he would be open to removing food vendors from the plaza if the American general were to ever request that. The mayor agreed. The next time the general saw a buildup; he called the mayor and asked that food vendors be moved out temporarily. People gathered, waited a few hours, felt hungry and they left. The same thing happened to people who came a little later. This one act saw riots reduce by 55 percent. This is why I believe little things make a big difference.
I am certain that you can see the power of that story in making that point. Now imagine me in a meeting telling the story in the same manner in which we would tell our children a story starting with:
“A long long time ago, in a far-away kingdom live a prince….”
<In an excited high pitch voice, I begin> Let me tell you a story about what happened in 2007 during the second Iraq war.You know the one started by President George W. Bush in 2003. If you remember, the premise was Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction. The first one, which was an equal disaster was started by his father U.S. President George H.W. Bush in 1990 in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. <Then in a tone of sarcasm, rolling my eye, I say> Both idiots.
Well, during the second one. In 2007, American Generals were posted in towns across Iraq to maintain the law and order. There was this particular General who was posted in a little town called Tirkit. The General was grappling with lots of riots every week. <Then in a grave voice>. But this was no ordinary General. He was twice decorated. In fact, war strategies ran in his blood. His father was a veteran of the war in Vietnam”…..and so on and so forth.
You get the point. With too many details and using a storytelling voice, I made the story very visible and many people in the conference room are desperately waiting for me to finish and get on with the meeting. None of the additional details I added in the second version was necessary to make the point I wanted to make — little things make a big difference.
So go ahead, and harness the power of stories in your business conversation. Remember to keep it short, just to illustrate the point you are making and share it using your regular conversational voice, in the same tone and manner that you normally speak and normally use in business meetings and presentations. And you will see how people get the messages you share and remember them for a long, long time.