Buzzwords and cliches aside, why is storytelling important to companies?

I’ve written before about the general power of storytelling — to leadership efforts, for example, or to marketing — but now let’s discuss it in the context of business storytelling.

Here’s a Wharton interview with Carmine Gallo, author of a book called The Storyteller’s Secret. The first thing we’re going to do in this post to try and showcase the value of business storytelling is move it away from the Type-A execs who will bellow “That’s something marketing does! I hit targets! I make money!” Right. But what if … just what if … this idea of business storytelling is actually tied back to making money? 

Here’s the first quote from Gallo towards that end:

Vinod Khosla, billionaire venture capitalist here in Silicon Valley, where I live, tells me that the biggest problem he sees is that people are fact-telling when they pitch him. They’re giving facts and information and he says, “that’s not enough, Carmine. They have to do storytelling.”

OK. That’s one billionaire advocating for business storytelling. Ready for two more?

When Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, another big venture capital firm, tells me the most underrated skill is storytelling, or when Richard Branson, who I interviewed, said, “entrepreneurs who cannot tell a story will never be successful” — at some point, I have to agree that maybe they know something I don’t.

Those three guys combined have about a net worth of $10B. They’re all advocating for business storytelling. Do we have your attention yet?

Business storytelling: The basics

This is what we tend to get wrong in marketing — we over-focus on tasks and deliverables shoved into campaigns, right? We’d much rather call a meeting andbreathlessly discuss the need for a “re-brand” because that makes us feel busy, which makes us feel like we’re high and increases our feelings of general relevance back to our organization. In the process, of course, we completely confuse “busy” and “productive”— those words are closer to antonyms than they are synonyms, but very few people understand that.

In this way, marketing is kind of a poster child for what happened to work in general in the last 30 years: it’s all about tasks, deadlines, targets, and deliverables. Strategy essentially died in the flood at most companies. Who has time to strategize when your Trello board is blowing up, baby?!?!

Here’s the real deal with marketing, which some companies get but many do not: it’s really just about storytelling that ties back to someone’s emotions. That’s it. We over-complicate it in 72,181 different ways, but it’s just about stories that tie back to people’s emotions. That triggers a response and a connection and that is the first step towards purchase, which is the goal of marketing: to provide the initial and mid-level steps towards purchase.

An example of good business storytelling

Check out this story from Gallo about Ritz-Carlton:

They’ve been doing storytelling forever. What they did – and this is what I try to tell other companies to copy, because it’s free — in a Ritz-Carlton hotel, every day, every department meets for 15 minutes. It’s a group meeting. And instead of just going over the day’s events, here’s what the housekeepers need to know about this floor, or whatever, they start telling stories. And they ask the question of the employees: “Is there a great customer experience that you’ve been a part of, that you can share with the rest of us?” I was part of one of these. I checked it out. It was really fun. They start sharing stories with one another, and then they start competing for who has better stories. They get recognized publicly. That was the key. The president of the Ritz-Carlton said, “The key is, you are recognized publicly for being the hero of your customer’s story.”

That’s a long quote. The single-most important part of it might be “because it’s free.” Companies are typically obsessed with cost savings — executives even moreso — and those same executives are often yelping and screeching in all-hands meetings about “shared vision” and “culture,” but as soon as that meeting is over, they run to another meeting with their lieutenants and just talk about money. This happens at hundreds of companies every day and, as a result, most people have come to view “culture” or “vision” as buzzwords. That’s sad, because those things should actually be driving what a company does day-in and day-out.

OK, but check this Ritz-Carlton business storytelling example. Consider:

  • It’s free.
  • It takes about 15 minutes.
  • It’s just a series of fun stories.
  • It creates a deep emotional connection to the brand and to your co-workers.
  • Again, it’s free.
  • It’s a hell of a way to set up a day for a department as opposed to everyone coming in, mumbling hi at each other, and checking their e-mail.
  • Hey, did I mention it’s free?

Let’s say you run a silo of a company and you’re concerned about “engagement” or “retention” or something like that. Let’s then say you’re presented with two options:

  • This business storytelling idea above
  • Spend $10K/year with renewals on some software program to “solve” your problem

If you line up 100 decision-makers, I bet 72 are taking the software program — which makes absolutely no sense on face. But we love to throw technology at things as a solution and hope it works; we did that to recruiting and it basically set that process back to about 1871. (Sometimes I fill out job applications by the glow of candlelight.)

The biases to business storytelling

The essential problem is that people like to put things in boxes at work — “He/she does that” or “That department handles that” — and it’s very hard to move away or out of those boxes. (The basic reason for this is that work, as typically designed, is really just a complex game of Hot Potato where you try and take sh*t off your plate and onto someone else’s so that you can stalk your ex on Facebook for the afternoon. “Sorry Liz, that’s your project now!”)

So anytime a concept like “business storytelling” comes up, some over-taxed C-Suiter is gonna bellow “That sounds like a marketing thing!” But marketing can’t own business storytelling — it has to appear in every department. F**k, you don’t think IT has stories to swap for bonding? You don’t think HR could weave some tales?

And if you assign business storytelling to marketing, what’s gonna happen is they’re gonna over-campaign it: it’ll suddenly become more and more about logos and positions on a PDF or some formal process in Google Drive as opposed to people actually telling stories, swapping customer experiences, becoming heroes, etc. Basically, we’ll throw a ton of process at it and bury the actual results.

Stories basically change a person’s brain, so if you’re some revenue hound senior manager, try to think of it like this:

  • You want more scratch and a fatter bonus for yourself
  • Part of achieving that is keeping down salaries for the middle, and/or replacing them with “perks”
  • Everything about salary and perks is transactional; it doesn’t create any type of deeper commitment to anything
  • Phrased another way: we all need money, sure, but it’s not every f**king thing
  • So what could you do that wouldn’t cost a lot, but would deepen an emotional connection so that your people don’t need higher salaries immediately?
  • Scroll above.

Most companies would roll out a program like this and it’ll roll right into the sh*tter — but when done right, it can be really powerful.

Ever worked somewhere or seen value in business storytelling yourself?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.


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