Luke Skywalker tills land at a farm on Tattoine but dreams of joining the Imperial Academy as a pilot. Then he meets his future mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, his aunt and uncle are killed by stormtroopers, and he finds himself on a journey to become a Jedi knight and foil the Empire’s new superweapon …
The plot of the original Star Wars movie, like those of the Harry Potter and Matrix films, adheres to an established story pattern called the Hero’s Journey. A nobody doing nothing important is pushed by circumstances into a journey. A mentor appears and guides the nobody through one task after another, each more difficult and requiring more heroism than the one before it. Just when it seems the former nobody cannot fail, calamity strikes, but the new hero ultimately triumphs.
The Hero’s Journey was defined by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book A Hero with a Thousand Faces, echoing Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes, and is now considered a fail-proof way of telling a story. In fact, many business managers I meet think that for their stories to work, they need to be big and grand and follow the Hero’s Journey plot line. Unable to mould their stories into this form, they then conclude that storytelling cannot successfully be used in business, at least not when it comes to everyday situations. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
There is a storytelling continuum that has recounts of experiences, anecdotes and examples at one end (small ‘s’ storytelling) and epics and sagas like the Hero’s Journey at the other (Big ‘S’ storytelling). Business storytelling is small ‘s’ storytelling. It involves using experiences and anecdotes to make an abstract concept concrete and build its memorability.
Let’s say that a call centre manager wants to make a point about the importance of customer service. Adopting the business storytelling approach, he forgoes a lecture on customer service values and instead relates an interview with Bruce Springsteen:
Bruce Springsteen has been a musician and performer for over 20 years and has a tremendous reputation as a live act. An interviewer once asked him how he kept up his motivation to deliver great performances night after night. Springsteen replied: ‘I realised that while for me every night is a “Bruce Springsteen concert night”, there are thousands of people in the audience who have spent their money to see a Bruce Springsteen concert maybe for the first and only time in their lives. So I want to give them the best ever Bruce Springsteen experience. And that’s what keeps me going night after night’.
The manager closes his talk by saying that while the team may take hundreds of calls every day, for an individual customer, it might be the only contact they have with the company – it might be the only ‘Bruce Springsteen concert’ they go to. Imagine the difference they could make if every time their customers called, they got the full Bruce Springsteen experience.
This little anecdote will be far more meaningful and memorable than a 30-minute talk on the values of customer service.
Another belief that seems to be held by many people in business is that to be an effective storyteller, they need to be coached in the ways of the theatre. Indeed, there are organisations that espouse this and offer theatre training as part of a business storytelling induction. Again, this is not the case. Business storytelling is about simple narration in a regular voice, usually brief and conveying a specific point.
Beliefs such as those described here, about a need for complex plot structures and high-level performance skills, unfortunately prevent many businesses from harnessing the power of stories in business. But the key principles of effective business storytelling are in reality much more straightforward.
For instance, to ensure that your story really illustrates the point you are trying to make, it is wise to test it out on someone you can trust to be honest and forthright. Also, unless the point of the story is crystal-clear, it is advisable to start by making it explicit, then narrating the story, and finally explaining that your story is why you believe in the point you are making.
It’s also important to remember that the best stories to tell are your own. Authenticity always shines through in a story in which you’ve played a part. It also allows the listener to deduce a few of your significant traits – your audience needs to understand what you care about before it cares about what you say.
By embracing simple principles such as these and being confident that you can be a storyteller, you can go about collecting stories and telling them on the right occasion and in the right context. We all have the potential to be great communicators who can connect, engage and inspire.
About Indranil Chakraborty
Indranil is a Mumbai-based leadership and communication specialist. IC has held senior roles, both domestic and international, in some of India’s most admired companies and now brings that experience plus story work to our clients. Connect with Indranil on: