What is Organizational Storytelling Anyway?

There is much talk about how organizations and businesses should use the storytelling technique to get across their vision, mission and service offerings to the public in a more meaningful and successful way. But, what are we talking about anyway? What exactly is organizational storytelling?

Simply put, I would say organizational storytelling is telling your audience something, in a narrative form, that evokes emotion, connection, understanding and action.

It is not messaging.
It is not discourse.
It is not debate.
It is not exposition.

Think about the last new person you met who really interested you. This would be someone who talked to you about something that caused you to really listen. And, perhaps you even walked away with a different viewpoint or new idea. At the very least, you probably added to your bank of understanding. From there, your actions will never be the same again. Knowledge cannot be undone. That person likely told you a good story.

Why Use Storytelling For Your Business?

Using narrative, anecdotes and stories as a way to tell people about your organization, your mission and purpose, and the value of your products and services is not new. But, it has grown more important due to the increased noise level and re-introduction of the human voice to corporate messaging. But, why is this? Why does storytelling work so well?

1. Stories attract attention. They tap into a universal, primal need to be interested. People don’t necessarily need to be entertained all the time, but they do need to be hooked. After all, we want to be connected to something that matters. Stories promise something larger than a straight corporate message.

2. Stories are remembered. Brain science tells us that information, when delivered via story, is moved from short-term memory to long-term memory. For instance, do you remember the Keep America Beautiful campaign? The American Indian’s tear rolling down his cheek in response to someone littering out the car window spoke volumes. Instead of just saying “don’t litter,” this campaign showed a person – who we already connected with the natural world – being affected by another’s action. Ask anyone who was over 10 years old in 1970 and they can recall seeing this PSA on television.

3. Stories shape beliefs and change mindsRobert McKee, a world-famous story and writing coach, says that for a story to have any meaning something needs to happen. He means someone needs to have experienced a change. And, when people hear or see this change, they can’t help but be affected. Great stories give people a new perspective, a new understanding or even incite a different action. Regardless of the effect, great stories move people.

Storytelling Via Blog Means Staying True To Your Voice

This morning I facilitated a brief creative writing workshop to a group of bloggers and social media stars, the Cville Sheblogs group. During the workshop I was reminded how unique bloggers are as a group of writers and storytellers.

Bloggers started writing because they had something they wanted to add to the conversation — a new perspective, a specialty, a different take. Bloggers freely write from their opinions. It this distinctive viewpoint that they must hold on to as their audience grows. After all, a blogger’s readership is drawn to that way of thinking (and writing). Staying true to that voice is key to keeping an audience.

But, as we all do, all bloggers will one day find themselves trying to write for the audience, believing they want to hear something else, rather than writing from their own perspective.

If you are a blogger — for either professional or personal reasons — remember what launched you in the first place. Even if you are blogging for your company, you were chosen for  a reason. Remember it. It will keep you honest.

Is Organizational Storytelling a Fad?

I’ve been in the communications field for 27 years. I’ve seen all the fashions come and go. First, there was corporate speak. (Think Mad Men, where the old boys’ network and the Ivy League degrees caused people to listen.) Then, dot-com speak. (Think “mission-critical, 24/7 value proposition” messaging -nonstop). Then, social media speak. (Think soundbites. About everything such as “I just ate a tuna fish sandwhich.”) Today we are coming full circle to return to an ancient form of communication that actually never went out of style. That’s storytelling.

Corporate or organizational storytelling uses the technique of using narrative that evokes an emotional response from its audience. And, in today’s information superload world, it is turning out to be the best way to get your targets to listen and remember you.

Storytelling is now the cool kid on the block for two simple reasons: 

  • The re-introduction of the power of individuals in communication
  • The increasingly noisy and data-packed world in which we live

With the change in “who’s in charge” around communication (thank you, social media) the corporate veil has dropped to show the people behind the magic. And, with real people come some very real needs – to be heard and to make a difference. People also are the heart of all organizations (not to mention news stories), so keeping them interested means talking about them or other people for relevance.

Additionally, the noise level has risen. Did you know we consume 174 newspapers’ worth of data a day (compared to just two and a half pages 24 years ago)? And, we produce the equivalent of six newspapers a day? That’s a lot of stuff. 

These two characteristics of our changing world – people taking control of communication and the increase in information coming at us all the time – is why I believe we have a resurgence of using storytelling techniques to our professional lives. Because, let’s face it, hearing “let me tell you a story,” is far more interesting than “let me tell you about our services.”