Every so often, a traditionally nonbusiness word finds its way into the business world, fueled by an admirable desire to find new ways to think about old challenges. "Storytelling" has become one of those words. And though storytelling has been around since early hunters first gestured to each other in front of a fire, only recently has the corporate community recognized the potency of using storytelling strategically—to position brands, transform business, and engage and align employees.
As "storytelling" becomes part of the corporate lexicon, it runs the risk—as do all such terms that come into fashion—of being overused and misappropriated. The sheer familiarity of storytelling, then, can work against the best intentions of those trying to use it, because people liberally apply the term to everything (from media relations to corporate brochures) without really understanding what differentiates storytelling as a communications strategy and makes it "tick."
The following are four distinguishing facets of strategic storytelling that'll help you better understand what it is (and is not), what it does, and how it works.
1. Storytelling is a pull, not push, strategy
Storytelling, when properly practiced, pulls people into a dialogue. It's about engagement and interaction. The audience is just as active a participant as the storyteller. In contrast, many companies and brands still relentlessly push messages to their employees and into the marketplace—without meaningful context, hoping that with enough repetition the messages will stick.
Consider a recent award-winning campaign by the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) called "Locals Know." The objective was to encourage Canadians to spend travel dollars at home instead of abroad. The campaign showcased lesser-known spots across Canada, piquing people's curiosity and interest with the simple, provocative question, "Where's this?"
Intrigued Canadians were directed to a dedicated website that served as an incredible catalogue of "secret gem locations" in their own country. Some spots were suggested by the CTC, but the vast majority of destinations were recommended by fellow Canadians—like-minded travelers who longed to share the story of their favorite locations with others.
Though mass advertising created broader awareness for the campaign, it was storytelling through social media that served as its primary engine, pulling people in and getting them to interact with the brand, engage with fellow Canadians, and, ultimately, book travel in their country.
After two years of running this campaign, the CTC estimates that travel dollars kept in-country well exceeded half a billion dollars.
2. Storytelling is a selfless, empowering act
Great storytelling points people toward a desired conclusion but gives them the freedom to draw that conclusion themselves. When people draw a conclusion on their own, they not only respect it more but also respect you more for helping them reach it. They're also much more likely to act on those realizations. A prime example of a leader who uses stories to shape the way people think (instead of forcing it) is master storyteller and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
Hsieh has built a culture of storytelling at Zappos, using stories to make the principles and ideas that drive the company's culture real for employees—most notably, an unyielding commitment to remarkable customer service. The stories that Hsieh and others share help employees more fully recognize the hard-to-define nuances of Zappos's customer service and give shape and dimension to the concepts they read in their employee manuals.
Here is an example of Hsieh's empowering storytelling in action.
3. Storytelling draws from both magic and logic
Truly great storytelling touches our hearts as well as our heads, getting us to feel as well as to think. It understands that ideas with emotions resonate with people more effectively and linger longer than ideas do on their own.
By connecting with people emotionally, storytelling opens a channel for mental connections to take place, a pipeline through which key messages, facts, and relevant information can flow. Information alone almost never changes people's minds, let alone their lives; but logic with feeling can make magic.
Luxury hotel and restaurant brand Relais & Châteaux understands the power of mixing magic with logic in sharing its story with the world. With roughly 500 locations across the globe, Relais & Châteaux had long focused its communications solely on the more tangible, physical features of its fine hotels and restaurants.
More recently, however, Relais & Châteaux discovered that what truly set it apart from other brands was the collective passions, ideals, and approach of its members—the hoteliers, chefs, restaurateurs who have all dedicated their lives to hospitality and service. Although Relais & Châteaux still showcases its properties, it gives equal billing (if not top) to the magical characteristics of its members, enabling them to share their unique stories and perspectives with discerning travelers around the world, as well as with its staff of 22,000.
4. Storytelling looks to the future
Successful storytelling respects the past and appreciates the present, but it also looks boldly into the future, moving people past "what is" to "what if?" Done well, storytelling helps people collectively imagine a vision of the future that is achievable and worth achieving, helping them to understand not only what they're working on but also what they're working toward. In this regard, storytelling connects people in deeply profound ways, linking them to each other and to the ideas and goals they share.
Great leaders in history have long understood the power of telling a story of the future to unite people and compel them to act. To watch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech is to witness future-facing storytelling at its finest.
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As you consider using storytelling strategically to give meaning to your brand communications or employee-engagement efforts, don't do so simply because it is "the next big thing." Do it because, if you truly listen and you are willing to be generous, authentic, emotional, and collectively creative— it works.
As one senior client recently said, "This is a bit frightening. I feel vulnerable; but at the same time, because I'm being myself, I feel more confident." If your organization is ready for that journey, there's a great story ahead.