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Why aren’t we telling stories in business?

Posted by  Mark Schenk —January 20, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

There are many reasons why stories are not used in business settings. One of the reasons is that every story we tell reveals something about our character, and we tend to be very protective of our character. Another reason is an unwillingness to give out any personal information.

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Turn what you say into a story

In August last year I was running a session helping people find examples to illustrate the business benefit of their products. I was listening to one participant speaking:

“I’ve got an example… I’m going on holidays soon, and have been doing the planning using XYZ Software. It’s very useful in identifying all the tasks that need to be done and keeping organised…” She continued talking for several minutes, maintaining the same vague, ambiguous speech pattern.

When she finished, I asked if she remembered the four things that indicate if something is a story or not (time marker, specific events, characters and something unanticipated). She nodded.

I explained that by adding in a few details she could turn what she’d said into a story. For example, I asked, “where are you going on your holiday and when?” She instantly turned to me and said “that’s none of your business”.

Keeping things impersonal is a barrier to storytelling

And she was right. It was none of my business.

But her desire to keep things completely impersonal was a barrier to moving from assertion to example; from something vague to something her audience could picture and comprehend.

The desire to keep things impersonal is a significant barrier to telling stories and business.

Personally, I would think nothing of saying something like “I’m going on a camping holiday with my family to the south coast in March. We’re going for three weeks so we’ll need to take lots of gear; camping, fishing, boating… Especially in March, when the weather is less predictable. So, to keep track of everything, last week I’ve started using XYZ software. It’s been great helping me to…”

Communicate in a way that has impact

If, like me, you think there’s nothing wrong with providing details like this in a business context, there is a good chance you’ll be a good business story teller.

If you think providing details like that is inappropriate, you will probably continue to communicate in a way that doesn’t have much impact and which people struggle to understand and remember.

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

5 Responses to “Why aren’t we telling stories in business?”

  1. Kenneth Says:

    The reason most individuals within organisations are reluctant in giving these details about what they say such as time markers and specific events is that they are afraid they will be judged by others and their privacy will be affected by this.
    Organisations should encourage its staff to have a culture of telling stories even about work related events or processes without the fear of victimization or being judged.
    This can unravel organisational memory not captured before.

  2. Isobel Says:

    I enjoyed reading your article on story telling but must admit I wouldn’t be self-disclosing personal matters in a blog…

    Imagine this…

    “Hey everyone, I’m going to Spain in July with my family for a week… we’re going to be topping up our tans, sipping cocktails, going to the aqua park and generally recharging the batteries. We’re also including a visit to Gibraltar for good measure!

    We fly out from Edinburgh on 5 July and come back the following week so I’ve set up a reminder on my iPad to buy some milk on the way home.”

    Lots of people we know read this thinking lucky devils and…

    …. way hey so does a burglar!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Our homecoming is a ransacked house and we really need that cuppa!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Mark Schenk Says:

    Hi Isobel,

    So true …. there is no way I’d be revealing that sort of information in a public blog either. But I’d be happy to do so in a conversation with a work colleague. What do you think?

    I’d also be aware of the level of detail I provide. If I added too many details (like the exact dates I was leaving and returning, the fare class of our plane tickets, etc) and my story goes from being effective to being tedious. Like so many things in life…everything in moderation.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. Tom Ware Says:

    As a public speaker and storyteller who also teaches these subjects I have long held what I call, “Voluntary Vulnerability” essential to a great speech. By this I do not necessarily mean giving away personal details of a tangible nature, so much as “putting our feelings on the line.” When we do this, when we show we are willing to reveal what moves us emotionally and what HAS moved us emotionally, we encourage others to take the same risks. We cannot expect others to show us their innermost truths unless we’re willing to do the same.

  5. Mark Schenk Says:

    Thanks Tom. I like the term ‘voluntary vulnerability’. When you lead by example in showing your feelings and character you are much more likely to get a story in response.

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