June 30, 2016
Once upon a time, storytelling was something business professionals did when they got home from work if they had children to lull to sleep. Today, however, it is being touted as a core skill that those at all corporate levels should master.
And with good reason. Storytelling has earned such attention because, quite simply, it works. Stories stimulate and engage others, and people will recall what they find interesting—which is critical if you want them to share your message. You can’t repeat something you don’t remember.
That’s why we need to use compelling stories to talk about our companies. Some business leaders will argue that storytelling is nothing more than fluff. But savvy executives know that bestselling author Seth Godin had it right when he said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”
And it’s not just customers who buy our stories; it’s also the employees who work for our companies as well as the jobseekers we’re trying to woo.
Brochures aren’t stories
I ask hundreds of people in all kinds of roles to tell me about their company. In nearly every case, I hear responses such as, “Well, we have our corporate brochure…” or “We just updated our website to reflect our new branding…”
Yet they can’t answer my basic question: What does your company do?
That’s where brand storytelling comes in. When done correctly, a brand story isn’t a brochure that outlines what you sell. Rather, it’s a short sentence that articulates the difference your company makes in the world. It’s audacious. It’s authentic. It’s succinct. And it’s memorable.
Consider these examples:
- “To champion positive social change that will enhance the quality of life for all as we age.”–AARP
- “Helping people be better in the moments that matter.” –Motorola Solutions
- “To develop leaders of character dedicated to serving the greater good.”—Texas A&M
Start with the backstory
Companies were started for a reason. The founder was passionate about solving a problem or believed he or she could do something better than anyone else. Just like family stories that get passed down through the generations, corporate stories tie people together, give them context for what they do and provide guidance for making decisions.
As companies age, the excitement that accompanied their origins can fade. We’re heads down with day-to-day demands, and we lose sight of why our work matters. No one has the time or energy for stories. Yet such times are exactly when they matter most. We need to remember the original purpose of the business in order to revitalize ourselves and translate that enthusiasm to prospective new hires.
For example, Emerson, an industrial manufacturing company in St. Louis, struggled with bringing cohesiveness to its 33,000 employees and 35 autonomous sub-brands around the world. They found the answer through storytelling.
The company began in 1890 when two brothers born in Scotland saw a business opportunity in developing a reliable electric motor. In reviewing the company’s 125-year history, Emerson’s executives discovered a common thread that stretched all the way to the company’s beginnings—that its employees are at their best when solving tough industrial problems, whether how to build a motor or the more modern challenge of transporting perishable food items over long distances.
Emerson’s “can-do” spirit became the foundation for their “Consider it Solved” branding campaign, in which company leaders shared story after story about how their employees successfully tackled global challenges. Recounting and celebrating those accomplishments served as a tremendous inspiration for everyone at Emerson.
Empower employees to become storytellers
The 2013 Gallup State of the Global Workplace study highlights that more than 40 percent of employees globally don’t know how to talk about what their company does or what makes them unique. It’s no wonder that the same report points out that only 13 percent of employees are engaged in their work. Why should they be? They don’t understand why it matters.
By articulating our brand story, we gain clarity about our ideal employees: Do we have a shared purpose? This streamlines recruiting and adds transparency for workers around rewards and recognition. When we have the courage to tell our story authentically, we inspire employees toward a common goal. This reduces any feelings of friction between individuals and replaces them with a greater sense of collaboration and comradery.
Marketers must understand how to work with others within our organization to help employees see how we work for a common purpose. This is how we reinforce the brand story. When people feel they are contributing to the greater good, they become more innovative and engaged in our work.
In marketing, storytelling takes the focus off what we sell and spotlights the difference we want to make in the lives of our customers. As we collaborate with internal communicators and HR professionals, it reminds us that the work we do isn’t just about recruiting employees and getting them to do their job. It’s about creating a workplace where people want to be.
And that, my friends, is no tall tale.
Photo credit: Flickr user EdgeThreeSixty TM
About Carla Johnson
Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.
Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.
In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds - Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking.
Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.