Storytelling. Why It’s Become a Buzzword in Business

From international companies like Nike, Microsoft and IBM, to small startups, many organizations now employ Chief Storytellers as part of senior management, a move that makes a lot of sense. The business of selling has grown more complicated and competitive requiring new methods of communication to engage customers. Ironically the “new” method of using storytelling as a marketing tool has been around for millennia and is part of our collective DNA. Just ask any cave person who ever sat around a camp fire and became mesmerized while listening to a hunter recount the story of a giant mastodon that got away that day.

In the same way that the cave guy’s story of the hunt fascinated his listeners and fired them up to try again for that escaped mastodon, Chief Storytellers today also build an emotional connection between a product or brand and their customers. Like the cave guy, they too persuade people to take actions: Love us, stay loyal and continue buying our products.

Stories Involve Their Audiences, and Audiences Remember

Storytelling works because a good story resonates with people. They become emotionally engaged with the events being related, and they pay close attention. They get excited and stirred to action. They can be swayed to feel sad, angry, happy, passionate. Subconsciously, they put themselves into the story (“If I had been on that hunt I would not have let that mastodon get away!”). They absorb a story’s meaning, because a well-told story stays in their memories far better than any list of bullet points or a stream of cold information (“We tried to kill a mastodon. It got away. End of story.”).

After many centuries of storytelling, businesses finally picked up on the fact that well-told stories tap into the shared interests of the teller and the listener.  It’s the emotional connection and shared interests that businesses now cultivate between themselves and their customers. Emotions and shared interests are what nowadays get your business point across far more persuasively than presenting statistics ever could. You certainly need facts to support your story, and those facts will be scrutinized, but no one will care to look under the hood at those facts if there isn’t a good story surrounding them.


How IBM Tells a Good Story

IBM tells the story of how its supercomputer, Watson, helped office products giant Staples transform its iconic novelty “Easy” Button into an actual smart button. Today, the novelty Easy Button is enhanced with sensors and wireless networking technologies, along with a conversational interface, enabling customers to interact with and order products via the Button using natural language. IBM tells the story of its new Easy Button by sharing the challenge it faced, additional obstacles that came up, overcoming the obstacles and then ultimate success – a beginning, middle and end that’s fascinating and demonstrates IBM’s skills at responding to and ultimately meeting customer needs.

Research bears out that audiences retain story-like information much more readily than they do statistical facts. Stanford University marketing professor Jennifer Aaker conducted research that found that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone, proving that experiencing a situation through a compelling story is the best way to learn.


Apply Storytelling to Crisis Scenarios — the Best Way for Your Response Team to Learn 

Selling products and services is only one business use of storytelling. You can take those same principles and apply them to creating a crisis scenario. When you’ve adhered to the principles of good storytelling, your crisis scenario serves as a very strong foundation upon which you can more effectively train your crisis response team during an exercise. Since we know storytelling is more effective than flat statistics at holding people’s attentions and getting them to relate to and remember things, we should always use storytelling techniques when creating a crisis simulation scenario for an exercise.

Related:  4 Reasons Crisis Scenario Planning is Effective

A crisis scenario, after all, be it a major fire, an active shooter, gross financial mismanagement, etc., is a story. When told to a crisis response team as the basis for an exercise that tests the crisis plans and crisis response, the scenario comes to life. It makes each member of the crisis team personally experience the situation they would actually be in if the crisis story were ever to come to pass.

Here are the steps to take for writing a crisis story that works:

Step 1: Establish Clear and Achievable Crisis Simulation Exercise Objectives

Before doing any writing, you first need to decide what your objectives are for the exercise. While Chief Storytellers tell their stories to build loyalty to their brand and induce customers to buy their products, Crisis planners are motivated to tell their crisis stories with other goals in mind.

Let’s say that one of your objectives for the exercise is to test the effectiveness of your newly purchased phone app for crisis notifications to the entire organization. Your scenario could then center on a crisis that makes mass notification necessary. You’ll find out during the exercise if the notification worked as it should have. Then, your scenario could further test the effectiveness of the app. One “inject” you might insert to advance your story’s plot could be, say, the big fire has knocked out power hampering your ability to use the phone app for mass notification updates. What would be the team’s workaround? Whatever solution the team comes up with you will have met the objective of testing the efficacy of the phone app.

Step 2: With Objectives Decided, Tell Your Story. Begin with a Brief Story Outline.

With your objectives firmly in mind, start with a one-page outline. A big fire is the overarching scenario with one objective being to test your notification phone app. But now you’ll need to develop the story’s arc: How did the fire start? How was it fought? Was it put out? Were there injuries? Loss of business? How did the crisis end? Answer these questions and you’ve got the outline of your story complete with objectives. And, as with any good story, your crisis scenario will unfold with a beginning, middle and end, one incident following another in a logical sequence.

Step 3: Develop the story details and throw in more obstacles for the crisis team to overcome.

As in any good story, you’ll throw in pitfalls and challenges, in the form of injects, that must be overcome. For crisis scenarios, these are the unexpected twists and turns in the plot that further challenge the team, just as any real crisis would have challenging twists and turns. Maybe the big fire gets out of control and improperly stored tanks containing toxic gases are ruptured exposing employees and first responders to poisonous fumes. Maybe lives are lost. Maybe the fire causes enough damage to limit your organization’s ability to continue business for a period of time. Throw in tough challenges in the form of unexpected surprise developments for the team to respond to and overcome.

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You may find during the exercise that the team cannot overcome the surprise developments. Those are invaluable teaching moments that will improve both your crisis plans and your team’s crisis response.

Keep It Real with Multi-Media

Whatever your crisis story, make it as believable as possible with realistic details, so team members are able to visualize themselves within the situation, so they learn from “experience.” Use multi-media to support your story by creating realistic-looking articles, Tweets, emails, videos, photos, news headlines, phone calls from “reporters,” etc. that convincingly advance your crisis story. Don’t risk distracting the team with something or other in the story that wouldn’t ring true. Keeping the exercise realistic is what enables trainees to stay engaged, learn concepts and retain information.

How Your Crisis Team Will Respond

In a nutshell, turning crisis scenarios into crisis stories ensures that your exercise will be…

  • Compelling – “Wow, I’ve often thought something like this might happen. I now see how it really could happen, and we need to do more to prepare.”
  • Emotionally engaging – “Irrational social media attacks on our brand during the simulated crisis seemed like something that would very probably occur in reality. Those attacks made me realize we need to have a social media engagement policy, so our employees don’t unintentionally magnify any such irrational social media attacks.”
  • Dramatic – “I didn’t expect that inject where my colleagues became trapped. I was terrified. But I thought very carefully about how they could be rescued.”
  • Realistic – “This really could happen to me and to this organization that I care about.”

Storytelling. It’s not just for hunting mastodons anymore.