Storytelling is one of those abilities that are really hard to sell, specially in a corporate setting. There are two main reasons. The first one is what I call, the “Once upon a time” issue. Most people, when exposed to the concept of storytelling can only think about fairy tales. That is, a combination of either Cinderella, Snow White or any other classic. This brings the mind to the realm of childhood, which is exactly the opposite (supposedly) of what business should be.
Corporations are about serious adults doing rational work, or so we’ve all come to believe thanks to corporate America. Having someone talking about Snow White in the middle of a board meeting isn’t exactly what people have in mind when you’re talking about powerful leadership tools. Hence the problem.
The second reason why it’s hard and actually the cause of the first reaction I just talked about, is that stories are an ingrained part of the human brain. They are so natural to us, that we don’t even realize we tell stories on a daily basis. Storytelling is to knowledge and communication, what breathing is for the human body. We breathe in and out every day. Actually we breathe and average of 24.000 times a day. Have you ever noticed that? I’m sure you haven’t. It’s so mechanical we don’t even notice anymore. It’s just there. Every time. every day. It’s not until someone teaches you some meditation techniques that you’re suddenly self aware of that breaths. You can then control them, count them, make them longer or shorter.
Well, the same happens with stories. They’ve been with us since we are little. We see them every day, several times a day. When you read the news, when you listen to the radio, when you talk to your neighbors, when you talk with your coworkers, etc. Everyone does it, but only few do it consciously and with craftsmanship. This is the reason why talking about storytelling raises so many eyebrows, we think it’s an alien childish notion when, in reality, it’s our day to day work.
Organizational storytelling is then, the art of crafting stories that aids us with daily tasks in our organization. As I always say, 99% of a company’s problems derive from communication break downs. No matter how complex the issue is, you can probably trace it to a lack of communication between departments, providers, management, colleagues or a combination of all the former. This is why, stories, the most powerful vehicle for human communication, are so important within an organization. You want people, not only to listen, but to remember and even make the information theirs. This is what stories allow you to do.
While we tell stories daily, this doesn’t means we are masters of it, in the same way that breathing every day doesn’t helps with reaching deep states of meditation. You need to focus and work on it. Hence the reason for a whole field called organizational storytelling, which allows us to learn when to tell a story, what kind of story should we tell and what will be the expected outcome if done right. It’s deeply grounded in human psychology and an understanding of how human emotions work and not only allows us to convey information, but actually it allows us to obtain information we wouldn’t reach otherwise. In a way, it’s pure Ethnological research applied to a work environment.
Storytelling isn’t easy, it requires some innate abilities and training, but Organizational Storytelling requires an extra punch, it calls for someone that not only knows about telling stories, but about how an organization works. This last piece of the puzzle is what makes it so rare. I see many people teaching storytelling, but when set loose in a corporate environment they fail. Not because of their teachings, but because the fail to see that context matters a great deal. I’ve been criticized plenty of times for being a revolutionary, for having quite a disregard for the rules. Yes, I do like bending the rules, not because I don’t understand why are they there, but because I know that to achieve specific goals, we need to get out of the comfort zone. That said, you need to have a clear idea where to bend and where not to. When to push and when not to. The only way to know this is you have an intimate knowledge of how companies work. Then and only then you can apply effective storytelling where it matters, where it helps the most.
This post and other examples are the reason why I’m writing a book on the topic. If you’re interested in collaborating or showcasing your own stories in the book, follow the newsletter and become a supporter.