Zoë Arden believes in the power of storytelling to build bridges. Here she explains how organisations benefit most by matching stories to action.
In my old PR days, we used a story device called ‘fact or fiction’. It helped separate myth from reality. When my career shifted into working with businesses that wanted to have a positive impact, through their products and services and in their communities, I wanted to leave the spin behind. However, as I got deeper into leadership work, I quickly learned that communication is a vital skill. And that storytelling is an essential tool for anyone looking to drive change through their work, by shifting mindsets or behaviour to achieve the desired results.
It’s fascinating to see how storytelling has developed. We’ve become obsessed with narrative. Even the techniques and timings of the most talented TED talker can feel trite at times. What about those stories that can change the world? And what can a business do to develop their own change-making stories?
Let’s focus on the facts for a moment
For over 40,000 years we’ve been telling each other stories to make sense of the world – with ancient cave walls frequently offering a more captivating canvas than our slide equivalent today. Character-driven stories, particularly when there is a tension in the narrative, produce oxytocin in our brains, which enhances our empathy and connection to others. Moreover, we are wired to remember the details of stories, enabling us to carry them forward and apply them to our own lives.
However, there is a caveat. While we know stories work, just telling them isn’t enough. Reciting them in some slick, inauthentic way can actually corrode trust, which is essential if the story is to have enduring impact and separate itself from fiction.
In fact, I believe there are three practices that are far more important than the actual storytelling: story listening, story training and story doing.
A listening ear
Let’s start with listening. Fundamental leadership capabilities include being curious, asking questions of yourself and others, and seeking a diversity of perspectives. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of our audience and ask: “What’s their problem that I can help solve?” Some of the world’s biggest organisations are investing heavily in stakeholder engagement, with the emphasis on listening to a range of views and experiences, rather than talking about them. For example, using mobile phones, companies like Marks & Spencer are engaging with factory workers in places like China to gain a better understanding of their working conditions.
Secondly, we need to develop our story muscles with training. This means that like any workout, we need to do it regularly. We have to persistently seek out stories in our organisations where finding these nuggets of information usually takes a lot of effort. Again we start with listening; start by speaking to the people in your business. It amazes me how many leadership teams have never shared the reasons why they joined the company. We need to start with the ‘why’ and remind people of the organisation’s founding story so that employees and customers can connect with it.
Companies like Accenture and Adidas are investing in storytelling training for hundreds of their employees. In particular, they are trying to cure the PowerPoint epidemic that is stultifying storytelling in so many companies. They are not alone. In his 2018 annual letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos repeated his rule that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings. He has replaced it with ‘narrative structure’ memos.
From telling to doing
Last but not least, we need to move from telling to doing. Story doing organisations have a larger ambition to make the world and people’s lives better. It is embedded in every interaction with customers, employees and partners. Every time you deal with that company it should give you a proof-point of their story. Story doing organisations understand they have a quest, a higher purpose in the world and convey their narrative through innovative action. For example, in 2013, TOMS committed to producing one third of their Giving Shoes in the countries where they donate them, such as Ethiopia and India. Local production helps to develop industry and build sustainable futures.
Another example, the global bank BNP Paribas has undertaken a range of actions across its business units to embed sustainability principles in all it does, including its investment processes. Its asset management business, one of the largest in Europe worth €399bn, last month launched an ambitious plan to help accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy. This included divesting in coal and asking every single company it invests in to demonstrate how it’s working towards to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Similarly, Patagonia has a digital platform that connects customers with local grassroots organizations working to save the planet. The platform helps customers learn more about local environmental issues and how to get involved. They have donated over $89m in cash to thousands of community-based groups that are working to create positive change for the planet in their own backyards.
And whilst the idea of story can feel ubiquitous, it is the lack of story that is scary. Without the enduring power of stories, we end up in the polarising world of a tribal ‘them and us’. When we look at global politics, the sad reality is that The Right are better at telling stories than The Left. Some of these stories proliferate populism and incite isolationism, such as Trump’s ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ and the Leave Campaign’s ‘Take Back Control’ Brexit slogan.
Stories have the power to bind us to what we value and where we are trying to go. As Alex Evans describes in The Myth Gap, we need to find new deeper stories that will create ‘a larger us’ as opposed to a ‘them and us’, ‘a longer now’ that enables us to think and act for the long-term, and a different version of the good life that’s predicated on quality rather than growth.
The good news is that we are seeing stories of hope and action. Powerful examples of storytelling and story doing are coming from unexpected places. The Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who told world leaders “You are never too small to make a difference” has inspired a global civil disobedience movement and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Schoolchildren in over 100 countries are now participating in the school strike for climate, which Greta started on her own last August.
Brand-driven companies are also using their power as storytellers to deliver cut-through campaigns that have social impact such as P&G’s Like a Girl. And, story experts who say that it’s tough to tell a tight emotional story about climate, should take a lesson out of the late Wangari Maathai’s book. The first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement, summed it up in 20 seconds: ‘It’s very important that we persuade governments and businesses that the environment is not an issue for tomorrow, it’s an issue for today. It is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. The environment is every day. And we can’t live without these things.’
Story enables us to better understand complexity and our inter-connectiveness. We need to build bridges from today’s reality to tomorrow’s possibilities. Stories can help business create the future we need.
And as for me, instead of leaving story devices behind with my PR pals, I’ve embraced them. Rather than seeing story as spin, I now see story as sense-making, enrolling and future-creating. Story can help us survive and thrive. Stories can light the way to a sustainable, inclusive and equitable future and give us all a sense of not only hope, but our own agency to create the future we want.
So remember, there’s more to story than just telling. The best storytellers start with listening, training and then, most importantly, doing. Recent research shows that story doing companies out-perform storytelling ones. So what’s the story doing that your brand is going to inspire?
Zoë is an independent consultant who specialises in helping change agents in business be more effective storytellers and leaders. She is also a Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and Head Tutor of CISL’s High Impact Leadership on-line course.