It’s interesting how stories, particularly emotionally charged or inspiring tales, can pique our interest in issues, ideas, products, novels, and a lot of other stuff. For business communicators like me, this is important because we always need to communicate to various stakeholders.
Dry facts, exhortations, or sermons don’t usually stick in the minds of people. Stories do. If you tell people about the statistics for obesity and heart attacks, people don’t usually remember. But if you tell a story about a person who was overweight, had a heart attack, and eventually changed his lifestyle and became a fitness instructor for celebrities, people would listen, and most likely remember the facts.
In social media and online sites, the potential to spread stories is even greater. That is why stories, just as in ancient times, continue to be a valuable tool especially in the digital age where communications is much more amplified.
One kind of story that people like to hear is about the struggles of successful people. Take, for example, the story of Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM. The title of this column was actually inspired by him and the tech firm he brought to dizzying heights of success.
He was quoted as saying, “All the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think. The trouble is that men very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work.”
IBM would never have become a household name if not for his “thinking,” and the “thinking” he inspired in others. “Think” was the slogan he created at a sales meeting in one of the first companies he worked for, and he brought it with him when he worked for IBM.
Another interesting story about Watson and his strict rules against alcohol which was related by his son Thomas Watson Jr., in his autobiography:
“One day my dad went into a roadside saloon to celebrate a sale and had too much to drink. When the bar closed, he found that his entire rig — horse, buggy, and samples — had been stolen. Wheeler and Wilcox (his employers then) fired him and dunned him for the lost property. Word got around, of course, and it took Dad more than a year to find another steady job.”
Aside from these anecdotes that help explain a leader’s ideas and way of thinking, stories can also inspire people when combined with a challenge. In a company, it can inspire employees to do better, stretch themselves a little more to reach targets.
Anthony K. Tjan, a venture capitalist and author of the bestselling book “Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck”, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article about the “indispensable power of story”.
For him, excellent communicators make themselves understandable and inspirational without dumbing down their message.
“Instead, it requires bringing in elements such as anecdote, mnemonic, metaphor, storytelling, and analogy in ways that connect the essence of a message with both logic and emotion. Almost everyone leading or creating has a vision, but the challenge is often expressing it in ways that relate and connect,” he said.
For companies, anecdotes can be testimonials that demonstrate the actual value of a product to a particular client. Mnemonic can mean the 5S for workplace organization, or the 3 Ps of the sustainability framework. Metaphor or analogy may mean using terms like “time is money” or “product life cycle”.
As business communicators, our quest for stories has become constantly and vitally important in a society with decreasing attention spans and overstimulated senses. Fortunately there are three sources of stories we can explore:
- Our clients — If we’re trying to convince people to try our company’s products, hearing from actual clients is actually the best way to do it. Haven’t we all tried products that our friends or family members raved about? If we go out and talk to clients and look for their stories, we can create a narrative that may be good material for a Public Relations (PR)/ communications campaign.
- Our employees — Employees are a good source of stories, too. Those who deal with clients or play a supporting role in the company have something to share. We need to find these interesting stories. How has the company helped others? How did it help the community? What are they working on?
- Other people’s stories — We can always learn something from other people, other industries, even our competitors. The stories they tell may be different, but we can always make a better one if we study what worked or didn’t work for them. Nobody can be totally original. It doesn’t matter. Short of copyright infringement or stealing intellectual property, we can always create something new and interesting. Innovation is key.
With a mindset of a storyteller, we may be able to get our message out in a more effective, efficient way.
The author is the head of corporate affairs and communications at BPI