Storytelling in the C-suite

One of today's hottest technology trends has nothing to do with the internet.

businesswoman speaking during a meeting
Thinkstock (Thinkstock)

Seemingly out of nowhere, storytelling has become trendy. These days everyone’s a storyteller: marketers, IT executives and even CEOs. The axiom that everyone’s got a story to tell has never been more apt.

I was telling stories before it was a thing. Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a screenplay. (I live in L.A. where writing a screenplay is like driving: Everyone does it, but not many do it well.)  Screenwriting is a serious exercise in structure and rigor. I took several workshops—including Robert McKee’s Story seminar, all the rage in West Hollywood. I studied Sid Fields, William Goldman and Joseph Campbell. I started using the word “arc” as both a noun and a verb.

Trendy as storytelling has become, it’s been around since the dawn of civilization. Before written communication, people convened around drum circles to share traditions and rituals. Australia’s aboriginal people used so-called dreamtime stories to explain the origins of the universe.  Stories make often inchoate concepts real, allowing groups of people to capture — and eventually record — accumulated tribal wisdom. The Christian Bible and Jewish Talmud are both full of great stories. (The word “Talmud” is derived from the Hebrew for “lesson.”)

In business, storytelling can be a chimera. Marketers want to use storytelling to capture customer mind share (and wallet share). Human resources wants to use it to encourage innovative thinking. IT executives increasingly rely on stories to substitute for jargon-y justifications for new technologies. Often these overlapping conversations celebrate storytelling while never fully exploiting its promise. Like other business trends, storytelling requires context to drive value.

“Good stories are engaging,” says Bree Baich, who writes and speaks about data storytelling for business and IT audiences. “Good stories make us curious. They fill in gaps in understanding, moving us closer to decisions. The use of visuals and supporting data also helps.”

Two types of storytelling

I like to split storytelling in business into two categories: above-the-line and below-the-line.

Above-the-line storytelling usually involves communicating a metaphor for who the company or group is, conveying its voice. Chevy trucks traversing rugged canyons (“Like a Rock”) or a pair of beleaguered financial services execs hand-wringing about regulatory compliance (“Know BDO”) are two examples.

Diagram illustrating above-the-line and below-the-line storytelling. Jill Dyche

Business storytelling can be split into two categories: above-the-line and below-the-line.

Below-the-line storytelling, on the other hand, relies on more context, and more specificity. CIOs and their teams tell stories to explain how things work, using workaday business concepts like win-loss scenarios or the customer journey as narratives. A CIO in retailing recently illustrated the in-store journey of a customer, “Cassandra,” before and after his team had installed in-store Bluetooth sensors to push real-time product recommendations. The average number of items in Cassandra’s post-sensor shopping cart had increased by a third, and she’d added an average of two monthly same-store visits.

“Effective storytelling should prompt action,” says Baich, “which is why executives are getting more interested in it. Whether you’re trying to gain consensus or simply build trust, stories help the audience connect with you and your ideas.”

My screenplay was about Paul Revere. I became a student of the revolutionary war, faithfully documenting the story of his ride, fictionalizing events when it served my three-act structure, overemphasizing the role of minor characters. (Absent a clear nemesis for Revere, I inflated the role of Major John Pitcairn). I became so besotted with the characters, so committed to the story, I managed to convince a studio executive to take a pitch meeting. This poor man was forced to break the news that his studio had just optioned a screenplay called The Patriot, with Mel Gibson already attached.

Storytelling is art and science, and its challenges are familiar. Fickle, demanding audiences, exotic settings, and the special skills of the storyteller inform a story's impact -- and always will. The best business storytellers use stories to color in what success looks like.

The Patriot grossed $113 million. I’m still working. But I still tell stories. And I’m sure that kind studio executive has one of his own, about the poor woman obsessed with Paul Revere, and the news he had to break.

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