The Science Of Business Storytelling

The Science Of Business Storytelling

The betel-nut cracked open. We waited, heartbeats pounding, with wide eyes and open mouths. The air was humid with a lingering fragrance of jackfruit. Barring the area lit by a lone kerosene lamp, it was otherwise dark, as there was no electricity, and, the shadow thus created was eerie. I did not dare to look outside our lonely house, terrorised by the darkness. The single half of the betel-nut underwent a series of murderous slaughters…. and he continued, “I had gone to the nearest town, taken the last bus … flat tyre… only reached at 2 o’clock in the night…. walk from village stop to our house about a kilometre away… passing through a cemetery…. and there she was…. in a white sari with long dark hair… walking in front of me and suddenly…. she turned …. only her head!”


The aforementioned scene is straight from my childhood days when we used to visit our village during the summer vacations. I still remember several stories that my grandpa narrated, and, it has managed to withstand the test of memory and time. Stories have the advantage of connecting to the heart as well as the mind; they are kinaesthetic, transformational, and, filled with the power of imagination and possibilities.


Using Storytelling in businesses


Arthur Major, the Director of System Safety at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organisations Use Stories to Drive Results (Jossey-Bass, 2006), described the physical behaviour observed by him among senior leaders when he wove stories throughout a presentation on how he planned to reduce mishaps and near misses, “I saw executives lean forward, put their pens down, look at me and listen.” He went on to say, “Their behaviour changed, because I changed the way I presented.”


When I train corporates in Presentation Skills and Public Speaking, whilst demonstrating the power of storytelling, I narrate stories, and, I do experience a similar intensity in listening among the audience. And, in my classes on Communication Skills at the Welingkar Institute, I have made use of stories, and, even after a gap of ten years, when I bump into students (now corporate L&D/HR Managers and Leaders), they remember the stories, and, thus several of the associated concepts.


Ways of using storytelling


Time on hand: How much time do you have for the story within your talk or presentation?  After all, the story by itself does not become a business story – you will need to debrief, connect, and, bring context as to why you have used the story, and, the plausible meaning for it.


The selection of the right story: An Aesop fable or Panchatantra may also work. However, with corporate audiences, it would be good to start cultivating stories that have an organisational context and can influence listeners to application.


The storytelling framework (CSPTR -Crow Searches, puts Pebbles & Thirst is Resolved)


Character/s: It is important to have character or characters defined in the story early on. Use names – if it is an inspirational story, then use their real names, and, if inappropriate, use pseudo names. While using pseudo names, one may also factor in diversity in gender, religious and location.


Scenerio: Build visualization and a connect to the story by expressing the scenario as vividly as required. Rather than saying, “Rayesh went to the meeting late,” narrate it as, “Rayesh entered hurriedly, sweating and tensed as he was late; he caught the eye of his manager Jaya who was staring cold at him.” If short on time, you may have to compromise on the narrative, however, do still create an imaginary scene, so that the listeners can walk into the scenario as if they are inside your story. This crucial aspect in the story builds recall and impact.


Problem: A story becomes a narrative because that was a problem or a challenge. The crow too faced a problem i.e. thirst! So, define the problem, and, this is where the narrator’s voice also plays an important part – change the pitch and the loudness, use body language, and, effectively voice for people to sense the challenge. Be careful that you do not bring in a lot of detailing in what the problem is as the listeners may get lost.


Twist: This is the catalytic moment where the main character or protagonist did something about the problem. The thirsty crow got a spark of an idea – putting pebbles one by one so that the water rose to the level at which the crow could quench her thirst. What is the twist in your story? Did the character do something about declining sales?  Did they innovate? Did they break mind-sets? So, what is the twist for the listeners?


Resolution: I prefer the word resolution as against solution since the former has more energy. In the story, it makes meaning in the mind of the listeners. It builds understanding as to why and what one should apply from the learnings of the story. It creates action in the minds of the listener.


So now that we have looked at the framework, let us explore what types of stories can be used in business stories


Types of stories – FOSSIL model


Founding Stories: These are founding stories – of yourself, others, or your organisational founders (character). These stories showcase the journey of the founder in establishing products, teams, organisations etc. One scenario would be of the business climate being totally inconducive. Bring out the problems faced by you/ the founder, and, then the dramatic twist (effort/ideation/hard work) that made you resolve the problem. At times, it is good to bring out your failures, and also, if you are encouraging failures in the organisation.


Overcoming Barriers Story: These stories can look similar to the founding stories, with the difference being that these are stories of you as an employee, manager, and/or leader. Start the story by where you were (the character) at that point of time. Build the scenario by narrating the environment (the differences between now and then). Cover the business challenge (the problem), and, how you/they overcame the same through determination (twist). The results of the twist would be the resolution of the challenge. Interestingly, these stories need not be yours, but, the actual stories of employees present in the audience – these can be highly motivational for the person/s and/or teams concerned.


Success Stories: These stories are about success - usually success with clients, business challenges, unplanned situations, complaints, or, acquiring tough new key clients. It could also showcase a particular teams’ resolve and hard work to achieve success in their key goals. Use the CSPTR framework similar to the mentioned before.


Self-Values: These are stories of ‘What I Stand for’ - about core values and work ethics. The adherence to the values/ethics in spite of having an easier way - by compromising on values or ethical code. You could integrate these stories with founding stories. These stories are used to make employees reflect on values of the organisations through the values that were tested of an individual.


Follow the framework- Note that the problem should be such that there is a decision dilemma where values or ethics are being tested. The twist is the decision taken which was difficult. The most important is that the resolution should be successful i.e. the unpopular decision adhering to values/ ethics gave a positive success in the long-run. Maybe, the immediate effect was one that may have lost a big sale / business / relationship, however, in the long run, it worked out as ‘principled’ – some amount of reading on the topic of ‘Principle Centred Leadership’ could help you debrief well.


Inspiring Stories: Inspiring stories are specifically about inspiring people. These can go beyond the organisation. The difference between a life story and an inspiring story is that these are about people who are alive and need not be well-known. These can seem similar to the earlier mentioned success stories, with the difference being that these stories are external to the corporate - outside of the organisation. E.g. My favourite inspirational customer service story is about a local ‘panipuri-wala’ who works on the roadside more than 12 hours, is standing all the while, and yet, greets every customer with a smile, and, amazingly remembers their preference of how they prefer the panipuri! This is the best inspiration ever.


In Quotes “Inspiring stories are specifically about inspiring people. These can go beyond the organisation. The difference between a life story and an inspiring story is that these are about people who are alive and need not be well-known.”


A good business storyteller would pick up stories from diverse industries/businesses, and, show a connection between what those inspiring people did, and, how it could be done in your organisation in a similar manner. Stories related to direct competitors are best avoided. You may bring out the story of well-known business leaders who are living in this category. At times, stories of ‘disruption’ start-up founders, community leaders fit well here. Follow the framework – you may bring in more examples within the story, of their problems, twists and resolutions, that help listeners see their consistent behaviours rather than one-off behaviours.


Life Stories: These are stories of great leaders who have lived their lives in an inspiring way. They are no longer alive and probably their lives are well-known because of biographies, case-studies and/or videos and movies. Inspiring stories are usually of community leaders, change leaders, political leaders etc. – however, be mindful that they are non-controversial, and, are therefore highly regarded and respected. Usually, these are people who may not be from business, however, one may cover a business leader who has done a great service by way of CSR etc.


Now that we have read a bit of science of storytelling by getting a framework and the model, it is time for us to start telling stories.  However, remember that the science is not enough, the art of storytelling requires one to be able to articulate the story well. And, for this, one may have to start working on their Posture and gestures, Oratory skills, With the story-facial expressions, Eye contact and Response and reactions handling. Happy story telling!


In Quotes “Now that we have read a bit of science of storytelling by getting a framework and the model, it is time for us to start telling stories.  However, remember that the science is not enough, the art of storytelling requires one to be able to articulate the story well.”

Ajit K. Kamath, CPF, is the Principal Enabler at WizTalks Management Consultants. He has been in the field of Training and Facilitation for 23 years, and, is now into Executive Coaching. He has also been a practitioner of Drama & Improv Tools in organisational settings and has been a part of Applied Improv Network. Ajit can be contacted on [email protected] or on [email protected]


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