A couple of weeks ago in one of our Business Storytelling training workshops, a participant stood up in front of the room to take her turn at storytelling practice. This person (we’ll call her Susan) had been very engaged in the workshop so far, so I was excited to see what she’d do in her moment in the spotlight.
As a brief set-up, Susan told us that she wanted to share a story with her team of direct reports to motivate them through a rough time, and she asked us to imagine we were that team while she practiced. After taking a breath, Susan began telling us about a tough business challenge her previous company faced with one of its largest customers. She explained the problem this customer had, the complex technological solution she and her colleagues developed to address that problem, and the positive outcomes that followed.
As Susan spoke, she did so with clarity and conviction, deftly walking us through the events associated with that former situation, while providing rich details around the problem and how they solved it. She concluded by looking us all — her pretend team of direct reports — in the eyes and enthusiastically telling us, “I know you’ve got a tough challenge ahead, but you will get through it just like my company did. So keep your chin up, your head down and push through. You can do this!”
While everyone applauded, I joined Susan at the front of the room to facilitate peer feedback on her story. As I always do, I first asked, “What was the point of Susan’s story: the key message you got from it?” Several people jumped in and said, “That we will get through this tough challenge.” I looked to Susan, who smiled and nodded affirmatively. As follow up, I asked, “How, exactly, did Susan’s story help you realize you’ll get through this?”, only to be met with a few blank stares and a lot of silence before someone volunteered, “Because she told us we would.”
I continued, “Did what Susan just shared feel like a story, or more like a business report?”, and the group all replied, “Report.” Exactly. I then turned to Susan, who now looked a bit dejected and confused, “What you just did wasn’t so much business storytelling as it was giving a report about business. A very good report, mind you, delivered strongly. But it wasn’t a story.”
This is a regular piece of feedback I give participants in our Business Storytelling training workshops. Make no mistake, giving reports about business is a very common and necessary form of workplace communications. But, as I went on to explain to Susan, it is different than business storytelling, and those differences manifest themselves in the following ways:
ONE: Reports inform us. Stories enlighten and inspire us.
Reports are primarily given to apprise an audience of something that has happened, is currently happening, or that should happen in the future (as in a business case proposal). When an audience hears a report or a proposal, they end up knowing something they didn’t know before. In contrast, when an audience hears a story, they should have a shift not only in knowledge, but also in thinking and perspective (e.g., “Huh, I never really thought of it that way until now. That makes a lot of sense.”). Going further still, a story should shift the way an audience feels, giving them the courage and conviction to take the actions the storyteller wants them to take.
What Susan shared did a good job of informing us as an audience, providing us with knowledge about a situation at her old job that we didn’t have before. But it did little to enlighten us and shift our thoughts about our current situation, and even less to inspire us and shift our feelings about it.
TWO: Stories don’t replace your report. They position what you’re reporting.
A well-crafted story, well told can play a compelling and convincing role in a business report or business case proposal; but to be clear, it doesn’t completely replace that report or proposal. Rather, you use a story to position what you want to report or propose, helping shape the way you want your audience to think and feel about your report or proposal, removing the mental or emotional barriers getting in the way of them embracing it, and paving the way for them to be receptive to it.
This is especially true when you are making a business case proposal to your senior leadership or a sales pitch to potential clients. At some point in that business case or pitch presentation, you need to inform your audience of what you’re proposing – e.g., the new initiative you’re recommending, the operational shift you’re suggesting, the change in personnel you’re asking them to support, etc. You will also likely need to inform them of how you’re going to accomplish what you’re proposing and what it’s going to take.
A story, however, helps your audience understand why you’re proposing what you’re proposing. More specifically, that story could fully and compellingly dramatize the opportunity your business case proposal or sale pitch will leverage or the specific problem it will solve. In telling that story, you’re focusing less on what you want to do. Rather, you are bringing to life why it’s worth doing.
If reports are about what happened, stories about what happened to someone.
THREE: Reports are about a work dilemma. Stories are about human dilemma.
If reports are about what happened, stories are about what happened to someone. Said another way, business reports are about a work situation; business stories are also about the people involved in and/or affected by that work situation. People are an essential element of any story…as well as what they saw, heard, said, smelt, tasted or felt; what was going around them and inside them; what they experienced.
When we hear reports at work, we connect with them primarily at a professional level, but only if what is being reported is of interest to us or germane to our business, organization, discipline, role, etc. As such, the relevance and appeal of a report can be limited, as Susan’s was. We might think, “That was interesting” or “Good for you for getting through that tough time,” but we don’t readily see ourselves in Susan’s report or make the connection between her old situation and our current one.
In contrast, because stories involve human drama, we connect with them at a human level. And because we are all human, stories provide greater opportunity to engage more people in a deeper and more meaningful way. If Susan had incorporated more humanity into what she shared — more about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of herself and her former colleagues, in addition to the information about the workplace situation — it would’ve been more of a story. We would’ve been more likely to see ourselves in it, thinking, “She knows exactly what I’m going through because she went something similar. But she got through it. Maybe I can learn something from her.”
FOUR: Reports deliver facts. Stories present ideas.
Importantly, those ideas aren’t forced upon us. Rather, the storyteller uses a story to facilitate our ability to uncover those ideas and embrace them. The storyteller guides and directs us, but ultimately we draw out the idea, the point, the conclusion from their story ourselves. This requires a leap of faith on the part of the storyteller and a lighter, trusting touch. But when we conclude something on our own (even with help from the storyteller), we will take greater ownership of that conclusion and more likely remember and act on it.
Susan’s report did a good job of telling us the facts about her situation at her past company, and she was very clear as to what she wanted us to take away from it (“I got through this. You will too.”). What it did not do was reveal any new ideas on how we will get through this or why it’s so important we do so. This is because she shared little about how she and her former colleagues tackled that tough customer challenge (e.g., being less siloed, working more as a cohesive team) nor what they gained as a result (e.g., pride in keeping the customer, feeling part of a larger whole).
Remember that if you say to an audience that you want to tell them a story, they are expecting a story—a real story, with people, with plot, drama, tension, resolution…and some relevant insight and inspiration generated from all of the above. We know how a story sounds, flows and feels, because we have been telling stories and hearing stories all of our lives. So don’t think that sharing facts and information in some sort of chronological fashion will cut it. It might make for a good report or business case proposal, but it won’t be a good story. Your audience will know the difference; it’s essential you do too.