Thursday, October 13, 2011

Storytelling in a suit: the art and craft of business storytelling

I wrote this article for the Connecticut Storytelling Center's newsletter, HearSay. It's a great publication with all kinds of useful resources. I thought you might find it of interest, so am sharing it with you here. I hope you find it interesting. If you're interested in other storytelling articles, click here. As always, please contact me for reprinting permission.

Human beings are storytelling creatures. From our earliest hunter-gatherer days we have used story to explain and understand ourselves and our world. This is true of organizations as well. The stories organizations tell about themselves (branding, marketing, vision and mission) are how they wish to be seen externally. The stories they tell internally (newsletters, intranets, gossip, employee chatter) are how the organization sees itself. The stories they tell themselves about their customers shape the products they make and the services they offer. None of this is a surprise, of course, since organizations are created and maintained by humans, the storytelling animal.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of business and art, and for the past ten years I’ve worked as an organizational storytelling practitioner helping companies and their employees tell their stories. In the course of this work, I’ve heard a huge range of stories and seen how story helped companies find their voice, solve internal problems, develop new products, expand, grow into better places to work and become better global citizens.

Organizational storytelling is quite different from our usual model of storytelling and yet surprisingly similar.  As storytellers know, when you “story” something, you give it life and depth and meaning. This is true in organizations, as well. Storying a company, a process or a product humanizes it – in a way that a memo or spreadsheet does not – and thus extends ownership throughout the organization or community. The story itself actually becomes a deliverable, a product, alive and vital to the audience, whoever they may be.

But it’s not always a simple process.

Organizational storytelling requires a lot of homework. First, how does the client want to use story? To sell an existing product or service or to design something new? To raise more funds? To attract better talent or further engage their employees? To clarify or develop a mission statement? The practitioner must have an understanding of their client’s stated needs, as well as a toolkit for new needs that may arise.

For example, I was hired by a large agricultural advocacy group to help them develop a new mission for the 21st century so they could grow their membership and attract more funding. They were interested in collecting stories from the farmers and educators within the organization, as well as from other company stakeholders, including board members, marketing personnel and administrators. My client also told me that each invested group thought that their own story should be the focus of the mission, to the exclusion of the others. In short, I was being asked to re-story an organization that had become highly factionalized.

I spent the weeks prior to my first meeting with the group learning as much as I could about their sector of agriculture, about their history and competing organizations. I also sent questionnaires to the workshop participants, and from these I learned essential information about the organization, preliminary stories and a sense of internal themes. I also learned that most of the participants thought storytelling was useless and the event was likely to be a waste of time and money.

On my first day, I wore my suit so everyone would know I took them and their work seriously. When I arrived in the meeting room, each faction sat separately from the other. Arms were crossed. Faces were closed. I began by establishing my credentials: about business, about their business in particular and about storytelling. We introduced ourselves, discussed expectations and set the ground rules – listening skills, honesty, open-mindedness. I talked about how story works and its importance in business. Then I asked them to tell each other stories.

We started with success stories: Tell a story about something you are proud of in your work. Or, tell about a specific time when the work you did had an impact on an individual. From successes, we were able to move to frustrations: Tell a story about a time when you felt hindered in your job.  Finally, they felt safe enough to talk about experiences they perceived as failures. As they told these stories the different factions began to realize that they all were telling very similar stories, with similar themes, that reflected similar values.

Over the course of three days, all the participants told their stories, in small groups and to the whole room. Farmers were talking to educators were talking to other stakeholders. Slowly, they began to distill the values of the organization as it is now (not as it had been) and they came to see the utility of storytelling and listening. By the end of the session we had developed a set of stories that every stakeholder could use, a new set of corporate values derived from those stories and a new mission statement.

They also discovered tools to help identify new talent whose values were aligned with their own and realized the importance to the organization’s growth of hiring people with skills beyond the agricultural realm – that is, to bring in new ideas and new stories. And now they had the skills for listening and collecting those stories.

The board chair told me later that she had been quite skeptical about storytelling as a tool for their organization, "But," she said, “You got us. You understood us.” Because I had learned as much as I could about agriculture and their specific history, I could speak their language, listen for useful motifs and navigate their politics. Had I not done my homework, I would not have been able to help.

When an organization decides to build a storytelling practice, it commits itself to greater authenticity and engagement. Externally, a storytelling organization is better able to articulate its value, regardless of its service or product. Think about your favorite brand. Why do you love it? What stories does it tell? Apple tells stories of good design and human connection. Chrysler recently started telling a new version of the American story with its Imported from Detroit advertising campaign. The Red Cross is there in times of need. Each of these stories somehow resonates with an aspect of being human, some story we wish to tell about ourselves or our community: technology so simple your grandmother gets it yet you still look cool while using it; strength and patriotism; helping and being helped. What’s more, each of these companies tells these stories as personal experiences – someone specific using their product or services.

Internally, a storytelling organization is a listening organization. They listen to their employees’ stories so they can help them become more engaged in their work. For example, I was asked to help a division of a government agency understand why much of their work force had low morale. Because I was a neutral observer, employees were much more forthcoming with me than they would have been otherwise and it quickly became clear that the style of management and conversation was one based on volume, not quality, of ideas. During several listening-based story workshops I lead, the leaders were able to develop new styles of managing while the less assertive employees began to speak up. Employee engagement and retention rose significantly.

A leader who uses story authentically and listens to their employees’ stories can’t help but connect more effectively to everyone they contact in the organization. It becomes harder to make thoughtless management decisions and, as a more positive work environment builds, the organization flourishes.

Storytelling is a broad and flexible tool that can be used successfully in any organization and it gives storytellers a chance to extend the impact of our work. Whether we listen to stakeholders to identify new values, problems or directions; coach a leader to be a better speaker and listener; develop story to communicate how a product or service will or could be used; or help build organizational cohesiveness, storytellers help businesses remember their roots – that they are composed of people, and people, each and every one of us, are composed of story.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Really appreciated your example. Would love to know more. Do you know what happened in the weeks/months following your workshop with the agricultural advocacy group? Has communication permanently improved...

    I often talk about stories in the context of social media -- how stories help us express our personal brand. Did the group find ways to take their stories online?

  2. Coming at this from the other direction, this is the same kind of communication and back-story (for lack of a better word) that I try to develop with my consulting clients. I hadn't thought about it in terms of Story, but now I will. Thank you!

  3. Having worked for three very different companies over here in the U.S. as part of corporate America, all of which went through horrible mergers and not so good mergers (is there ever a really good one), I can see vividly how storytelling works. Not just for big businesses, but also not so big and small companies too.

    I can see how start-ups could really benefiting from storytelling before they get too big. I worked with Allaire (ColdFusion software and Homesite) when they were growing rapidly and was part of the transition to Macromedia before they were bought out by Adobe. It was a small and lively company and so much changed with the initial sale of Allaire. There were fooze ball tables and scooters and a real feeling of teamwork. The focus shifted with no story being told so the employees were in a state of anxiety of not just the company's future, but their own. And the company culture was rapidly changing too. Story would have helped.

    When I worked for WorldCom I saw the merger of UUNet, and them MCI. Again great changes and no story, which lead to incredible turnover as good employees left not wanting to find out what was next - because of lack of story. And when the story came out... well, that's a story most of us know.

    I think your article, Laura, speaks greatly to these difficulties and more in this time of uncertainty - for very different reasons. Thank you for showing with such clarity how powerful story is.

    Simon Brooks, storyteller


True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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