How Storytelling Sells

March 23, 2011

Corporate Storytelling as Undiscovered Riches

There is a growing movement that believes in the power of storytelling to communicate in business, even to sell products and services. What is behind this thinking and how can we tap into the power of our inner voice?

First of all, I’m not claiming that anything I say here is new. I was lucky ten years ago to meet an interesting man from the Mars Corporation who had worked on exactly this area. As usual, Mars were ahead of the game. Disney have also habitually understood the power of storytelling as part of building their brand, perhaps because their films are a succession of stories and their experiences and merchandise are so dependent on the stories they tell.

So why is storytelling so effective? First of all, storytelling taps into one of the oldest pastimes, a way of uniting communities, conveying truths and entertaining those we love. Children beg to be told a bedtime story, and so, a small part of us continues to feel comforted and reassured by information presented in the form of a tale.

There is a strong oral element to storytelling. In history, tales were communicated from generation to generation without being written down. Sometimes music accompanied the storyteller. Sometimes storytelling took the form of drama, initially in ancient Greece, perhaps even in caves, and certainly in the plays of Medieval mummers.

Storytelling is therefore an important part of the dialogue between people. What is the first question you ask a someone you meet at a business networking event? I bet it’s something along the lines of “How long have you been with your company?” To which, oddly if you think about it, the classic answer is a story: “I’ve been with Plastic Holdings for three years. Well, before that I was in a different industry, helping research into oil based paints. Now though with Plastic Holdings I’ve had the chance to travel the world and help people understand the importance of the right materials to the job in hand.” See what I mean? The questionner didn’t ask his new acquaintance to tell a story, but it was immediately the first response.

There are two ideas that spring from this th are significant. The first is the strong oral tradition of storytelling. Stories were initially passed down from person to person, and as such, any corporate ‘story’ needs to have an oral element. In addition to appearing in company newsletters, on websites, etc, the company story needs to take flight in the conversations of staff members. This is where it starts to feel part of the company culture. Video can also play a part in disseminating the story.

Second, and these two are connected, it needs to feel, and be, completely authentic. This is important. We’re not talking fluffy myth making here. OK, myths are stories too, told first at the hearth and then in theatres and on stage but veryone knows them for what they are. Myths do not belong in corporate culture. Stories do. A good corporate story is a carefully researched and validated recording of real events.

The wonderful Max Howard, President of Exodus Film Group and owner of the Max Howard Consulting Group is now working worldwide helping organisations understand the importance of corporate storytelling. Animation specialist, ex-Disney and Warner, a man who can spot a good story from 20 paces, it will be interesting to see his progress with major organisations over the coming months. The views on storytelling raised above are my own; I am sure Max could tell it better.

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