Thursday, September 26, 2013

The three pitfalls of storytelling

Author: Yamini Naidu

There is a global buzz around the power of storytelling in business.  Stories and storytelling have the power to influence and inspire and storytelling is being rapidly recognised as a hot emerging business and leadership skill. Yet as with everything, storytelling can have a dark side and these are the pitfalls to avoid when using storytelling.

Faking it

In business all your stories (unless they are parables) must be authentically true. Period. This simply cannot be stressed enough. It’ s simply not worth the backlash on your reputation, on your credibility in manufacturing, spinning and inventing stories. In an episode of the Australian television show, The Gruen Transfer, which discusses the methods, science and psychology behind advertising, the panel was discussing marketing spin. The commentator said in marketing spin, you take one truth and spin everything around it. Business storytelling is the complete opposite of that, everything in your story needs to be true.

Forcing it

We once saw a CEO squirming his way through a story and found out later he had been coerced by his media advisor to share a personal story.  Nothing was more uncomfortable to watch or obviously to deliver. Not every message needs a story, and if a story is used the narrator needs to enjoy telling the story and be confident it will work for the audience and purpose. A few years ago we did some work with a leadership team, where the organisation was outsourcing processes overseas. The leaders were making a series of presentations and wanted stories to support their key messages. After about 45 minutes when no stories were emerging we asked the leaders ‘Can you honestly put your hand on your heart and say that you believe this is the right thing for your people?’ None of them could. We then advised them to simply use the business case data when presenting, instead of trying to force stories.

Fluking it

Often people think storytelling is a gift and some people are born with it.  Nothing can be further from the truth. Storytelling is a skill that can be taught and learned. No storyteller who is good at storytelling flukes it, or flies by the seat of their pants. A lot of both preparation and practice have gone into the story, even though it may look impromptu or off the cuff.  John Stewart the ex CEO of National Australia Bank, was often described as a natural storyteller. We had the privilege of interviewing John and asked him about being a ‘natural storyteller’. He smiled and said ‘My best ad libbed stories have been practiced for hours in front of the mirror’. The most frequent feedback we receive in our workshops is that storytelling is not as easy as it seems, yet the rewards when you get it right are well worth it.