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Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling - Book Review

1 July 2022
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

The book "Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling" by Shawn Callahan, published in 2016, is widely recognized as a leading resource in the field of storytelling. It explores the multitude of ways to share knowledge, convey messages, and persuade, highlighting storytelling as a crucial tool for corporate knowledge managers. Notably, organizations like the World Bank have embraced storytelling as a central tool in their operations.


The book covers the following topics:
  • Introduction: What is business storytelling and why is it necessary?

  • Types of stories

  • Discovery

  • Memory

  • Sharing

  • Refreshment

  • Training

 

Each section delves into the specific aspects and importance of these elements within the realm of business storytelling.


Introduction: What is business storytelling and why is it needed?

We have all experienced a multitude of stories throughout our lives. We have also shared our own stories on numerous occasions. Storytelling, as a natural and innate ability, serves as a powerful tool for transferring knowledge.

 

In the realm of business, storytelling holds significant value when it comes to conveying messages effectively. While some individuals may possess an innate talent for storytelling, it is a skill that can be developed through a structured process, training, and continuous improvement.

 

The practice of business storytelling offers a myriad of benefits. It serves as a catalyst for:

  1. Effective messaging.

  2. Connecting people and fostering engagement.

  3. Building trust.

  4. Inspiring action.

  5. Influencing decision-making.

  6. Sharing valuable lessons.

  7. Amplifying your perspective and ensuring your voice is heard over competitors (as stories are difficult to refute with mere facts).

 

But why does storytelling possess such remarkable power? Stories evoke emotions, making them more memorable and deeply meaningful to us. They resonate within us, shaping our beliefs and exerting a profound influence on us.

 

It is important to note that storytelling primarily revolves around the art of oral communication, rather than writing essays. While a story can be complemented by presentations or visual aids, its core lies in the act of an individual standing before others and narrating. Oral storytelling differs significantly from written storytelling, featuring elements such as repetition, well-placed pauses, and the flow of thoughts. This medium is particularly suited for imparting practical knowledge rather than abstract concepts, relying on familiar clichés and stereotypes.

 

Interestingly, we often incorporate storytelling elements into our everyday conversations without even realizing it. The art of storytelling is intricately intertwined with the cognitive processes of our brains.

 

Contrary to concerns that storytelling may not be suitable for the workplace, the writer asserts its applicability and high effectiveness. It is crucial to embrace storytelling as a valuable tool and harness its power in professional settings.


Types of Stories

There are several recognized categories for stories, which can be grouped into two main clusters. Each story can be associated with one or both of these clusters:

 

1. Theme Stories - These stories demonstrate specific content:

  • Narrative Values: These stories showcase desirable values such as integrity, unconditional service, courage, and more.

  • Narrative Innovation: They illustrate what innovation looks like, how it can be hindered, or how to ignite it.

  • Narrative Lessons Learned: These stories share valuable lessons to facilitate assimilation. Interestingly, stories that expose the producer's embarrassment have a greater chance of influencing us.

  • Narrative Vision: Stories that portray an inspiring future, ideally through the experiences of a small team already working in that direction.

  • Narrative Postal Code: These stories exemplify topics that management has prioritized for future activities, such as leadership, efficiency, care, caution, and more.

 

2. Template Stories - These stories serve as a tool:

  • Connecting People: Stories used to foster connection and rapport among individuals.

  • Clarifying Unclear Matters: Stories that elucidate past events, changes, and future scenarios. It is recommended to incorporate real stories and emphasize significant "moments" within them.

  • Promotional Story Strategy: The author cautions against excessively tailoring a story to fit a desired strategy, as it may compromise the story's credibility.

  • Affecting People: The wisdom in these stories lies in allowing the listener to feel that they have made their own decision rather than having an idea forced upon them. It is advisable not to introduce the desired message explicitly. The author recommends always having two stories in stories of influence—one about unwanted behavior and another about the desired behavior.

  • Narrative Success: Such stories carefully select and filter the events being told, enabling the listener to empathize with the story's subject and be motivated to achieve similar success.

  • Narrative Founders: This type of story is particularly effective in conveying organizational values and culture by highlighting key moments that shaped them.

  • Narrative Analogue: These stories draw lessons from other organizations and contexts to inform desired outcomes in the present situation.

  • Parables and Fables: Stories that utilize symbolic narratives to convey moral or practical lessons.

 

By understanding these different types of stories, storytellers can effectively engage their audience and deliver messages that resonate and inspire.


Stages of storytelling:

Discovery

The first step in discovering a story is to educate and train ourselves to differentiate between a story and positions, opinions, statements, data, and other forms of content.

 

A story involves sharing knowledge that the listener is less familiar with. A successful story contains elements of surprise and the unexpected. It should make the listener raise an eyebrow and, in the case of business storytelling, convey a business message.

 

To identify a story, especially a good one, it's crucial to understand the following:

  • A story always includes a description of an occurrence.

  • In a good story, we see what happened.

  • In a great story, we understand what happened.

 

Pay attention to the descriptions, visualizations, and contexts that evoke emotions within you. There lies a story.

 

Those skilled at recognizing stories also know how to spot stories that are not yet refined or polished enough. These stories can be collected and further developed because they have the potential to become valuable after processing.

 

Stories cover a wide range of topics, but four prominent themes in the world of storytelling are power, death, child safety, and sex.

 

Stories can be found everywhere, in daily life, on the web, on television, in literature, broadcasts, and movies. It's essential to actively seek and collect them. Furthermore, it is highly recommended to share personal stories that are connected to you as the narrator. Personal stories have a greater impact, and that is what we aim to achieve.

 

To collect personal stories, you can focus on decision-making intersections, especially those involving challenging decisions. Take note of the things that stood out for you during the day and the events that had a significant impact on your life. Consider the places where you found inspiration. It can be helpful to ask yourself "why" about various occurrences.

 

The writer suggests maintaining a daily diary where possible stories that arise during the day can be recorded. Such a diary serves as the foundation for the initial stages of effective storytelling.


Memory

To effectively tell stories, it is essential to remember what we have discovered and collected. Having a substantial repertoire of stories to draw from in the appropriate context is crucial.

 

What makes a story memorable? Here are techniques to enhance memory:

  1. Review the story multiple times.

  2. Summarize and process the story in writing, avoiding overwhelming details that might dilute its impact.

  3. Associate the story with a specific place.

  4. Connect the story to a particular event.

  5. Personalize the story by considering its significance to us and why it resonates.

  6. Categorize the story using predefined tags, such as customer service, organizational errors, courage, and more.

 

Consider the content and delivery method:

  1. Evaluate how the story evokes emotions.

  2. Assess the story's influence on our own reactions.

  3. Measure the personal connection we feel towards the story, including its entertainment value.

  4. Take note of the story's uniqueness or any remarkable elements that differentiate it from others.

 

If our goal is to tell a good story, we must first commit it to memory. Secondly, we should ensure that it captivates the audience, evokes emotions, contains noteworthy elements, and has the potential to impact those who listen to our story.


Sharing

Stories can be shared in various settings, such as lectures, sales calls, leader's speeches, team meetings, 1:1 sessions, or even job interviews (to convey a convincing self-narrative). It is essential to discern when it is appropriate to share a story. Consider the following factors:

  1. The audience's interest and receptiveness.

  2. Sufficient time available to share the story.

  3. A shared knowledge base (as stories often rely on prior understanding).

  4. The presence of trust between the storyteller and the audience.

  5. The presence of storytelling cues from others, as stories invite more stories.

  6. Having a clear message to deliver, as stories without a purpose should be avoided.

  7. Ensuring that the audience has not already heard the story multiple times.

 

Characteristics of stories that are easy to share include:

  1. Emotional impact (preferably not repulsive).

  2. Social relevance.

  3. Immediate connection to the ongoing conversation (trigger).

  4. No hidden elements that hinder the natural flow of the story.

  5. Practical value (founder stories often possess such value).

  6. The ability to evoke a sense of identity.

 

Recommendations for effective story sharing:

  1. Avoid announcing that you are going to tell a story; simply tell it.

  2. Adhere to ethical standards: share stories that you believe to be true, refrain from presenting others' stories as your own, maintain authenticity in your storytelling style, respect the privacy of individuals involved in the story, and ensure that named individuals are portrayed positively.

  3. When encountering a contradictory story, avoid directly confronting it with facts. Instead, share a counter story that reinforces your message.

  4. Begin with the intended message, share the story, and then return to the message (without excessive elaboration, trusting the listeners' intelligence).

  5. Treat storytelling as a natural act, not a performance. Be authentic in your voice and tone.


Refreshing

At some point, it becomes necessary to refresh our collection of stories by storing away some of the ones we have collected, remembered, and shared, and perhaps even discarding them entirely. Certain indicators can suggest that it is time for a story refresh:

 

  1. Declining interest in your own story or the audience's waning interest.

  2. Repeatedly using the same story for the same audience.

  3. Transitioning to a new organization where context plays a crucial role.

  4. Desiring to change your image and be perceived differently by listeners or even yourself.

  5. Realizing that you have been telling someone else's story as if it were your own (and someone else has noticed).

 

When these signs arise, it is important to recognize the need for fresh and relevant stories that align with your current context and goals. By refreshing your repertoire, you can engage your audience anew and present a genuine reflection of yourself or your organization.

 

Training

The author of the book strongly emphasizes the importance of deliberate practice in developing storytelling skills. To facilitate this, they present a comprehensive training program that encompasses multiple stages. It begins with discovering stories and sharing them in a comfortable setting, gradually expanding the skill to encompass different types of stories and diverse audiences. Interestingly, to further refine the skill, the author recommends training others in storytelling.

 

Taking the skill to an organizational level involves three key components:

  1. Incorporating multiple strategy stories.

  2. Cultivating a repertoire of success stories.

  3. Developing the storytelling abilities of individuals across all types of narratives, as discussed earlier.

 

In summary, the author's insights have opened up an entire discipline to me. While I had some prior knowledge and experience with storytelling, the author's expertise has undoubtedly deepened my understanding. I am grateful for the valuable lessons I have learned from them.

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