The stories you’re already telling
Sometimes clients tell me they’re not sure they want to tell stories at work. It’s a big step to move away from the impressive language of business to being personal and reflective – after all, ‘professional’ is what got us where we are today.
But it’s worth stopping to ask: are we happy with where being purely professional has got us?
As valuable as data, analysis and logic can be, they leave our emotional side completely cold – and sometimes, sceptical. Audiences and customers often respond politely to our pitch, but we find in the long term that we fail to capture their imagination. Even in the 18th century Jonathan Swift put it: It is impossible to reason a man out of something he was never reasoned into in the first place.
Stories let us be professional as well as personal. While they present key information, they’re also busy appealing to people’s inner-most, secret hopes and affections and dreams. Stories allow us to make good business sense, and for it to feel right, too.
But here’s the thing: it’s not entirely under your control. Whether you want stories spreading about you or not, your staff, your customers, and even your full marketing mix tells a number of stories that affect your business.
Think about this. You’re doing the shopping at the weekend, and you and your other half are busy discussing whether to cook or get a takeaway, and you bump into someone you know from work. You have a pleasant chat and say goodbye, and then the same thing happens, every time.
Who was that?
You explain who your colleague is to your partner, in terms of stories you’ve told about him.
He’s the one who…
Everything you do and say could turn into a story which could be repeated. And everything you and your staff do and say will either reinforce or undermine your brand, whether it’s repeated as a story or not.
Consider these three examples of how stories are spreading, affecting the effectiveness of business leaders and their organisations:
Good gossip. I know a College Principal who everyone’s talking about, ever since she answered the phones on switchboard for an hour so the staff could go have a team meeting without excluding anyone. All the College know more how they should behave toward everyone in the organisation, and what kind of treatment they can expect from her.
Tell great examples. John Lewis uses in its training a story of a man who came into the shop in a panic – he was about to go into a job interview and had had a spill. The assistant sold him a shirt – and ironed it for him, so the candidate would look fresh and presentable. Everyone who joins the company knows the level of service they are expected to deliver.
Working against you. Parents in my town all tell stories of the hairdressers on the high street, who charge full adult price for toddlers’ haircuts and chase customers up the road if they undercharged them. Now if I ever go in there, I look for – and almost certainly find - more evidence to reinforce my negative expectations.
You can say you’re not ready to do storytelling in your business, but the stories are being told at full power, with or without your consent.
And people don’t hear the stories as just one-offs. Since small anecdotes represent much larger truths about you and your business, it’s worth planning and carefully crafting our stories, to give glimpses into the personality and expertise of your business. Those way listeners understand there’s an even greater wealth of goodness with you, that they want to explore.
Something to do:
If you cast your mind back to school, you might remember that stories have character, conflict and resolution.
The stories people tell about our businesses set up the same structure. Whether you are present or not, they cast you as caring, attentive, innovative and active, or give the uneasy impression of a place which might not be living out the brand it aspires to.
When your business faces a problem, is the time to set yourselves up as different. It’s in how we respond to conflict that really shows what we’re made of. And this is the best source of stories: dealing well with a complaint can turn a dis-satisfied customer into an advocate.
It may be tricky for you to tell stories of your fabulous service to your customers, but you can encourage your staff to a new level of behaviour by telling them stories of when you’ve seen it done well. If amazing service becomes business-as-usual, your customers will do the telling for you.
Next Monday I’ll be writing about how stories can invisibly built into the very framework of our businesses – and how we can use that to our advantage.
Do you have experience of stories helping your business? Have you learned about their power the hard way? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or get in touch in any of the usual ways.
Next week: Personal and professional
Last week: Start with a story
Member since: 23rd September 2013
I’m Director and Shop Manager of Kett's Books, a social enterprise bookshop in Wymondham, and I write the White Dot Business Writing Blog. Life in the bookshop keeps the business writing advice real.