A Story is a Thousand Pictures: The Power of Business Storytelling

May 29, 2014

Which is more compelling?

Scenario A: A business leader convenes his staff in an all-employee meeting and provides all sorts of data reflecting their organization’s need to improve customer service: customer satisfaction has declined from 94% to 81% over the last three years; customer complaints have increased from 12 a week to 23 a week; market share is declining from 55% to 43%; blah, blah, blah. Or…

Scenario B: A business leader convenes his staff in an all-employee meeting and relays this simple anecdote…

Last week, one of our biggest customers fired us, says the CEO. John, the president, contends that we have not fully met his company’s needs for quite some time now, and to make matters worse, we haven’t put in any effort to understand why, to fix the situation, or to repair the relationship.

It started about 6 months ago when John’s company placed a big order for our XYZ product. Our call center recorded the order, but there was no follow up from the account rep to confirm the specifics (as is per our process), and there was no check-in a week before scheduled delivery to verify that we had the order right (which is also our standard process). It’s no surprise, then, that we didn’t deliver on-time and that the order was incorrect: we only gave him half of what he ordered. In fact, after now researching the issue, it appears that several of our key processes broke down – from ordering to fulfillment to service check-in to actual delivery.

The order was finally delivered about two weeks late, causing him to miss an important deadline on his end. To pour a little salt in the wound, no one from our company even followed up to ask for his feedback on the transaction. I talked with him at length last week, and while he thanked me for my time, he had already moved his business to one of our competitors.

Folks, this level of customer service will no longer cut it in our industry: we have to improve how we serve our customers, or we risk losing more big customers. We’ve see customer satisfaction drop 7% this year, complaints nearly double, and market share slip 12%. The good news is I think we can turn this around, and I’d like to ask for your help in doing so…

Today’s business world is faced with increasing complexity, volumes of data, and an overwhelming amount of information. Helping people – customers, potential customers, employees, partners, investors and funders – cut through the noise is oftentimes the difference between effective and sub-optimized communication. Data are important in helping leaders make their case (and to make better decisions), but there is power in telling stories to convey your perspective, to capture the attention and interest of your audience, and to inspire change. In essence, stories can help leaders and professionals bring data to life – to give meaning to information, to create an emotional connection, and to motivate action.

Karen Dietz of the National Storytelling Network defines story as “an act of communication that provides people with packets of sensory material that allow the listener to quickly and easily internalize the material, understand it, and create meaning from it.”

Stories can bring meaning to an organization’s brand; stories can illustrate an organization’s core values in action; stories can emphasize the need to change; stories can reflect an organization’s mission, purpose, and strategy.

Lori Silverman, the owner of Partners for Progress (a management consulting firm, and a partner of PEN who is facilitating two workshops in Minnesota in late July), has conducted in-depth interviews with more than 170 leaders from over 80 organizations around the world. In her research, which forms the basis for her 2006 book, “Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over,” Silverman concludes that “stories have strategic importance far beyond mere entertainment value.” Silverman suggests that stories are a powerful tool in many applications, including customer service, human capital, marketing and marketing research, branding, teamwork, leadership development, financial management, project management, organizational change, addressing difficult issues, conveying history and core values, and communicating strategy.

One example in Silverman’s book centers on the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group. It reported three outcomes from its storytelling efforts:

  • Doubling the number of its hotels to 40 in the five years prior to the book being published and readying to double in size again.
  • Returning guests were 55% of customers compared to an average rate in the service industry of 20-25%.
  • Turnover was lower than any other major hotel company in the U.S. when compared to industry standards, as demonstrated through independent survey results.

Silverman highlights many improved outcomes from the use of stories across all 80 organizations:

  • 36% have experienced positive financial impact to the bottom line through increased growth, profitability, and/or increased funding.
  • 18% have noted that story has helped their organization implement strategy – has moved them closer to furthering specific organizational goals.
  • 17% have reported increased levels of engagement between people and the organization and/or higher levels of teamwork.
  • 17% are able to show a positive impact on the amount and type of customer feedback, improved customer satisfaction and/or improved customer perceptions of the brand.
  • 11% percent have experienced decreased workflow cycle time, improved speed of message delivery or time to market, and increased efficiencies.
  • 10% reported an impact on training feedback and effectiveness, including transfer of skills and knowledge to the workplace.
  • 8% noted positive cultural changes.

Other results include increased visibility through media or industry awards and rankings, closing more deals with clients, improved staff retention, practical problem solving, bringing core values to life, overcoming issues, improved employee satisfaction, and decreased employee absenteeism. Would results like these make a difference in your organization?

So how do organizations systematically leverage the power of story? Silverman offers a few best practices (and will offer many more in her July 23 workshop based on her recent book, Business Storytelling for Dummies, which is included in your registration fee!):

  • Stories already exist in your organization, so the trick is to evoke them by asking open-ended story prompts. For example, the phrase “Tell me about…” can be used with employees, prospects, and customers to generate narrative that is richer in detail and more contextually based than simple fact-based questioning. It’s important for leaders to find the stories worth telling; in so doing, you’re also getting a pulse on the organization’s culture (or marketplace’s perception, or investors’ mood, and so forth).
  • Analyze stories to find the hidden meaning. Silverman contends that hidden below the surface narrative of stories are the assumptions, models, expectations, and beliefs that guide people’s decisions and behaviors. These elements don’t reveal themselves on surveys, and rarely do they come out in response to specific questions. The trick for leaders, then, is to continue to dig into stories to determine satisfaction levels (of employees or customers), unmet needs, concerns or problems, and values. The best practice is never to take a story on face value alone, but to dig into deeper meaning.
  • Select stories that resonate – those that characterize the essence of the organization, what it is trying to accomplish, and what it values. Develop criteria for selecting stories. Usually, the best stories will support vision, mission, strategy, and/or goals; will define and demonstrate organizational core values; will communicate successes and failures; will connect the organization to its history and legacy; and will highlight both good and bad customer feedback. Many organizations capture, categorize (preferably electronically), and code stories to help leaders reinforce key messages in a thoughtful, systematic, deliberate way. Remember, a best practice in communication in general is to repeat a message several times in several ways; stories provide a different mechanism to convey important points to important stakeholder groups.
  • Turn anecdotes, examples, and case studies into compelling stories Silverman claims that stories have a pattern: they have a beginning that establishes context and that hooks the reader, a middle that emphasizes conflict (or some sort of need), and an ending that brings resolution, offers a lesson, and inspires a need for change. Look again at my anecdote above…admittedly, it’s not a perfectly written story, but it does have some of the key components (a hook at the beginning, statement of the need to change in the middle, and a call to action at the end). And it probably would be far better received than the drier, data-rich message above it. Stories have very special characteristics that make them one of the only forms of communication that can immediately move people to action.

As author Philip Pullman once said: “After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need the most in the world.”

They give color to data; they emotionally connect the audience to a message; and they inspire change. If a picture is a thousand words, a good story is a thousand pictures.

To learn practical techniques and tips you can use right away, check out Silverman’s book – or better yet, consider attending our July 23 workshop (and get the book for free!). Silverman will also conduct another full-day workshop the day before in Rochester: “Proven Ways to Enhance Strategic Thinking.” To register for either, email me directly. Both workshops will likely sell out, so don’t miss this great learning opportunity!

What other insights do you all have the power of stories as a communication tool of influence? Post your thoughts or your reaction to the insights above on our LinkedIn discussion page, our blog page, or my Twitter account.

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)

Catalyst for Success for 27 Years!