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Common misunderstanding in business storytelling

This rarely happens, but yesterday I found myself yelling at a podcast episode as it played in my car.

The episode was ‘The power of storytelling – a cautionary tale’ on ABC’s Future Tense podcast.

My outburst came at the end of the program when story specialist, Nick Morgan, said that vaccine hesitancy was overcome in the US when more people had a first-hand experience of getting the vaccine, and “story… didn’t have a lot to do with that.”

Here’s the full quote:

“I wonder if we have completely given way to storytelling? In the way that we are told that we have. Certainly in the media, you watch Netflix, the basic unit is the story and storytelling. But I think about, for example, how vaccine hesitancy has declined in the United States where I live. Over the last four months, we had a number of groups, especially minority groups, that were showing really high levels of vaccine hesitancy: Blacks, Hispanics, other groups. Those levels of vaccine hesitancy has declined markedly over the last four months. And it’s not because these groups were told stories, new stories, about the vaccines. And it is also not because there was a change in messaging around the vaccines to those groups. It’s because there were trusted messengers within those communities who started getting the vaccine. They started getting the vaccine and nothing happened. There weren’t any bad side effects. And so people started to trust. First of all, their actions were based on the people they trusted the most, which were their friends and their relatives. Especially their older relatives who were getting the vaccines. And as far as I have been able to determine, story, the way we think about it, didn’t have a lot to do with that. So I think we are operating, sometimes, at a different level that doesn’t have anything to do with story.”

You might be wondering what I was yelling in my car. Well, it was something like this:

HOW DO YOU THINK THOSE PEOPLE WHO GOT THE VACCINE SHARED THEIR EXPERIENCE WITH THEIR FRIENDS AND RELATIVES?

That’s right, they told simple stories. Something like, “I got my vaccine this morning. I have a bit of a sore arm, but it’s all OK.”

Yes, it’s tiny. But this is the type of stories we tell each other all the time.

And this is where the misconception about effective business storytelling happens.

When someone mentions the word ‘story’, especially journalists, they immediately think of crafted, fictional stories like what we see on Netflix. But that’s like judging the world’s biodiversity by only looking at mammals and forgetting the insects. Our small stories vastly outnumber crafted and fictional stories, yet most story specialists don’t even notice them, let alone appreciate their power. I like to say that you need to change the stories told to change a culture. And the stories I’m talking about are the small ones.

Once you start focussing on small stories at work, you realise change comes through a combination of the stories we tell and your actions as a leader to trigger new stories.

Let me share an example. Last year, we interviewed an executive team and their direct reports to hear the stories they were telling about their business in order to work out the story they needed to tell to explain their strategy. Over and over, we heard the same story. “When our product hits Australia, it’s so tough to get it through the regulatory hoops. We try and try and, when we get there, there’s very little profit to be had. It’s a tough business.”

Yet, we also heard that this harsh environment forced them to innovate, and the rest of the world benefited from their breakthroughs. And because of that, they did get the profit they needed. They were an innovation incubator for the global business.

So that becomes the new story the leaders need to tell. Then they have to find the many small stories to back it up. The small stories are the evidence just like they were for the vaccine hesitant.

I found listening to that whole podcast episode frustrating for two other reasons. First, they hardly told any stories. I’m always suspicious of people who purport to be story specialists but don’t tell stories. And secondly, their obsession with the hero’s journey. This is the classic hero plot we see in Hollywood movies, and in my experience, you rarely see the hero’s journey in the field (in companies).

The upside to this surge in interest in storytelling is that it’s introducing more leaders to the idea. But I worry they will be misled by programs like this one on Future Tense and think storytelling is all about crafting stories and making things up.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

Comments

  1. Andres says:

    I laughed at the caps because i pictured yourself yelling them while driving 😂

    Btw, I’m also with you on this

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