Business storytelling is a critical part of developing a business model. Indeed, the way you frame the story of your organization will influence its brand in the long term. That’s because your brand story is tied to your brand identity, and it enables people to identify with a company.
Back in the cave
Humans have dominated the world thanks to their cognitive abilities. Humans have bigger brains that allowed them to overcome adversity and thrive. Humans conquered the world thanks to their intellectual superiority.
Would you agree with these statements? I bet you would. Yet this is not the thesis of History’s Professor, Yuval Noah Harari, also the author of “Homo Sapiens,” and “Homo Deus.” In fact, as he explains in his Ted Talk, individually, humans are not that smarter or stronger or better than other animals, or mammals in particular. Humanity took over the world.
How is it possible then that humans dominated the world? The answer, according to Harari is ‘cooperation.’ Other animals cooperate as well! What makes us special? Are we more peaceful, compassionate or smarter than other mammals? Not really.
For instance, among our closest cousins, the bonobos, are way more peaceful and almost as much intelligence as we are. Then, again, what is unique about us?
The Rise of the Story-Listeners
According to Harari, we are the only species on earth, which beliefs in stories, myths, and narratives. In short, if you ask a monkey to loan you a banana in exchange for a banana and a half in a year’s time; the monkey will not only eat it but also throw you a stone. Why? Because the monkey does not believe in the “interests’ myth.”
This ability to believe in stories, allowed us to form large and complex societies. In fact, our brains allow us to cooperate at the small-scale level.
This is because there is only a certain threshold of information that our minds can handle before plateauing. According to Harari, if we could not believe in stories, it would’ve been impossible to form groups of more than 150 individuals.
Therefore, this ability carried us forward. Yet, if we ask ourselves “are we happier, healthier, and more intelligent than we were when living in the Savannah?” Although there is no definitive proof, according to Harari, the answer may be a “big no-no.“
Why? Often we are so compelled to believe in stories. Those narratives, bend our reality and make the world take a strange turn. In other words, when those stories became mere propaganda this can lead to significant troubles.
Therefore, each time we come up with a new “myth” we should also place a label on it, which says “handle with care,” to avoid troubles.
What does this have to do with the business world?
How Storytelling Moved from the Historical Stage to the Business Arena
So far we can say that among the most significant inventions of humankind there is not the wheel, the steam machine, or the space shuttle. Instead, the corporation, the state, and the church.
From Emperor Augustus to Steve Jobs; from Alexander the Great to Elon Musk; storytelling and the ability to “fabricate” new myths had played a massive role. For instance, Emperor Augustus understood that to keep the Roman Empire compact; he had to create the “Roman myth.”
How could he otherwise glue together the consciences of millions of individuals? He did so through a story, which became known as “The Aeneid,” written by the most excellent storyteller of that time, Virgil!
Successful people in business understood this concept and made it work in their favor. Would anyone love Apple if it didn’t believe in “Steve Jobs‘ Myth?” Would anyone trust Tesla or SpaceX if it didn’t believe in “Elon Mask’s Myth?“
You may say, “well, these are persons, not myths.” Yet this is only in part true. Take Steve Jobs. Although he doesn’t have a physical existence anymore, he is still alive in the conscience of millions if not billions of individuals. We can say that in the “inter-subjective reality” (the stories shared by millions of heads) he is alive than ever.
Don’t get me wrong, both Apple and Tesla are great companies. A great contributor to their success was the ability of those companies to carry out the so-called “founder’s myth.“
There is nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, when the fabricated stories start to bend reality, by creating a massive gap between the “real world” and the “mythological world” things may get out of hand.
What would happen to Apple or Tesla if people suddenly stopped to believe in the founders’ myth?
An Ethical Code for Storytelling: The Art of Finding the Sweet Spot
We saw how important storytelling is to create a business that sticks in people’s minds. On the other hand, we also want to make sure to find the sweet spot. How? By answering three central questions:
Is your story authentic?
Howard Schultz (Starbucks‘ Founder) tells the story of his father, which broke an ankle when he was only seven years old, and the whole family lived in New York City housing projects. Since his father had no health insurance, to pay for the expenses they were left with no income.
At the moment in which Howard Schultz told this story, he fabricated the corporate responsibility myth. In fact, companies are abstract entities. How can a company be responsible?
When people associate Starbucks with the responsibility, they think of Schultz’s story, and that is how the Starbucks brand grows into the imagination of millions of people around the world. The story works though because it is authentic!
Would people be enthusiastic about sharing your story?
When Blake Mycoskie explains how he founded TOMS SHOES people want to be part of it. Therefore, when you buy Tom’s shoes, you are not only purchasing cool shoes but rather the story behind it.
As Mycoskie recalls in his book “Start Something that Matters” people are so excited to share Tom’s story, that there is no need for marketing the product; it sells itself. Once again, Mycoskie is a story that compels people to share and spread the word. And once again the story is authentic.
Is the story in line with your business?
When Elon Musk‘s story of how he founded his companies spreads like a virus, his companies automatically acquire an aura of heroic entities, operating for the “greater good.“
Therefore, even though Musk‘s companies get $4.9 billion in government support, none raises an eyebrow. Why? Because once again the story is authentic, compelling, and in line with Musk‘s business ventures.
Understanding business storytelling
Business storytelling is used to create compelling narratives for various forms of business communication such as presentations, reports, content marketing, and advertising.
As the name suggests, business storytelling utilizes the structure of a story to guide internal and external communication. The approach has many applications. It can be used as a persuasion tool or as a tool to sell to a prospective client. It can also define new marketing narratives and differentiate a brand with respect to the competition.
Business storytelling, like all forms of storytelling, is as much an art as it is a science. It requires a certain amount of skill, creativity, and patience. But when used correctly, it can empower individuals within a business environment to transcend corporate jargon, problem-solve more effectively, and enhance business practices. For the organization as a whole, business storytelling also encompasses stories that are used to support mission, vision, and purpose.
Integral components of business storytelling
Business storytelling is a process that endeavors to create an internal and external brand people can relate to. While the basic process should be adapted to suit the context, storytelling should always strive to express business communication, facts, and figures via the telling of a believable, engaging, and authentic story.
Here is a brief outline of the steps that are involved:
- Understand the audience – the crafting of a user persona is paramount before any work commences on the story itself. This will maximize the chances the story will be viewed, read, heard, and understood by the correct audience in the way it was intended.
- Create the core message – the nature of the core message is far less important than the presence of a core message in the first place.
- Craft the story – with the core message identified, a story must then be crafted to give it extra meaning and depth. Business stories should explain the success of a past initiative and how the same initiative could be beneficial to the user. Stories should also avoid excessive detail, contain practical solutions that are cost-effective, and incorporate human emotions, values, and situations.
- End with an outcome and a call to action – every story must conclude with a thought-provoking message that motivates the audience to take action. To that end, a call to action (CTA) may include asking a prospect to agree to terms or encouraging a customer to subscribe to an email list or purchase a product.
Benefits and implications of business storytelling
How can businesses benefit from telling stories? Below is a look at a few examples.
Employee efficiency and engagement
Companies only succeed when employees are motivated and driven. However, research firm Gallup found that 85% of worldwide employees and 65% of employees in the United States were not enthusiastic about their roles.
Business storytelling can be used to create a corporate culture that is conducive to satisfied and productive employees. It is important to share stories about the company, including how it came to be and the obstacles it had to overcome to succeed. Employees are instilled with a greater sense of purpose and meaning when leaders make an effort to include them in the future story of the company.
Stories also influence decision-making. In the same way that consumers look at stories in product reviews before deciding to purchase, businesses evaluate the stories of other businesses before deciding whether to enter into a relationship with them.
In essence, the quality of storytelling is used to determine whether someone should get involved with an organization. That someone may be a customer, stakeholder, or potential employee.
Purpose and profit
Storytelling provides the link between purpose and profit. Indeed, companies such as Apple and Google became successful because they were founded by visionaries whose story involved changing the world. If the business has a story that consumers can get behind, all the better.
Telling stories is also a useful way for the business to make its mission and vision statement less esoteric. The companies that display their humanity, personality, and imperfection will avoid the stigma of a faceless corporation and become the sort of business others will naturally become attracted to.
- Business storytelling is used to create compelling narratives for various forms of business communication such as presentations, reports, content marketing, and advertising.
- Business storytelling is a process that endeavors to create an internal and external brand people can relate to. This can be achieved by understanding the target audience, developing a core message, crafting a story, and ending with a call to action.
- Business storytelling can be used to improve employee performance and profit potential. Stories are also considered by key stakeholders when deciding whether or not to become involved with an organization.
Visual Marketing Glossary