Leaders "still reluctant" to embrace the power of story

storytelling Aug 17, 2020

We just posted an article on this blog about how the World Economic Forum regards storytelling as a key part of ‘flattening the curve’ and enabling hospitals to cope with the influx of Covid-19 patients when the pandemic was at its first peak.

The WEF was singing the praises of data-based storytelling. The article said: “The right information delivered in the right way can prompt people to change their individual behaviours and collectively save lives all over the world.”

And the WEF suggested every member of an organization should be trained to deliver messages in the most compelling way.

And yet, in business, there’s still a reluctance to embrace the potential of storytelling as a leadership and communication tool.

A study by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) found that just 43% of respondents believed storytelling could play an important role in their organization’s communication strategies.

Only 18% of respondents were actually using storytelling tools within their respective firms.

And yet there’s clear evidence that storytelling works. When the Sodexho Foundation decided to boost employee participation in payroll contributions last year, it turned to storytelling. It included an insert with paychecks that included the stories of beneficiaries of the foundation’s programs. An employee named Toni shared her story:

"Being a single mom of six children makes it very hard for me to live out my own dreams. After graduating from the Sodexho Foundation-sponsored Community Kitchen, I am now able to fulfill a long-overdue wish to start a career in the culinary field. Now that I am a supervisor cook for Sodexho, I am able to provide leadership and service in the company and in my community. It is very empowering.”

The results of this story-based approach were dramatic: a 100 percent jump in participation and a 116 percent increase in annualized contributions over a similar, non-story-based campaign two years earlier.

But in the IABC survey, only just over 30% of respondents believed their senior leadership made effective use of stories.

In fact, only 18% thought their organization was ‘very effective’ in using stories. One third said their organization was either not at all effective, or only minimally effective, at using stories.

And yet 43% said storytelling had a ‘very important’ role in communication strategies.

It’s also clear from this survey that stories get used for very particular purposes. Great for newsletters (74%), less important in presentations (50%) and not so popular in annual reports (41%).

Respondents were asked to elaborate on their opinions. Here’s a typical sample:

  • “In a business environment, stories are written off as ‘fluff.”
  • “Storytelling [is] not seen as serious communications.”
  • “The communications department here is used to corporate-speak rather than storytelling.”

Senior leaders were also perceived as potential obstacles. One respondent said: “I think the main obstacle is that most executives just don’t understand how storytelling can make them more effective.”

Others talked about senior leadership’s poor communication skills, “lack of interest generally in effective communications at the top” and leadership’s "fear of being too informal and not using corporate language.”

Research suggests digital storytelling will be among the top five trends that will shape communication in the next few years – ahead of social listening, social purpose and big data.

But many business leaders still view storytelling as fuzzy… despite a mounting body of evidence that stories really are a potent way of getting people to listen, think about and act on your message.