Is Storytelling the new black?


A new General Manager has joined one of our client’s organisations. And the word has spread that when he meets people in the lift he asks them ‘So what’s your story?’ GULP.  A sure fire way to kill any conversation, most people feel cornered with this one & mutter hum ha and then hastily dash out at the next floor, whether it’s their stop or not.

We are definitely seeing the word story used everywhere, from the company story, to the brand story, to the tag line for a budget airline that says ‘Low prices are just half the story’.

So if storytelling is the new black how do you wear it well?  As the self nominated  ‘story fashion police’ here are our tips.

For GAWD’s sake stop calling everything that moves a story!  Just calling something a story doesn’t make it a story.  We were working with a client who kept talking about their retail story.  When asked to explain further they promptly launched into their retail strategy.  So it wasn’t a story it was their strategy.  It’s still OK to have a strategy (in fact it’s highly recommended) and even better is to call it a strategy.  You can then have a range of stories that help people understand and connect with your strategy.

This brings me to my next piece of advice – always aim for a range of stories – no one story can encompass a whole strategy or a whole brand.  Having just the one story is like having just one black suit and trying to wear it all year around, in summer, in winter, to the beach, skiing, in the garden, on weekends…you get the point.

Similarly you need a range of stories to communicate your strategy or your brand.

Nordstrom the upmarket retailer in America has ‘Outstanding customer service’ as one of its core values.  And they communicate what they mean by this through a range of stories. Like the story of a Nordstrom employee who made a house call to exchange a pair of shoes and another one about Nordstrom splitting two pairs of shoes in order to fit a customer with different sized feet.

And finally never ask for a story / stories.  It’s like asking people to tell you a really funny joke.  It puts people under too much pressure.  Instead ask the right questions to draw out the stories.  So if you are looking for stories around your customer service ask people “Can you think of a time when you or someone you know made a customer happy?”  You need lots of questions, to draw out the stories and some patience.  It will take some time for people to warm up and often the first or second story will spark more stories.

For example every register at Nordstrom stores has pen and paper for customers to share their customer service experiences. Every morning before each store opens, Nordstrom employees gather in the main lobby for the store manager to share some of the best experiences from the previous day and reward the employees in those stories.

Storytelling is definitely the new black and just like black it’s both timeless and classic…or is that just a Melbourne thing?!

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16 Comments
  • Gabrielle Dolan
    Reply

    Kaj, Thanks for your comment but I have never heard of Nordstroms rewarding their employees financially for occurring in stories. As you say this often has a negative effect. The ‘reward’ I believe they offer is just public acknowledgement in sharing the stories. This would certainly help in the personal satisfaction of living out your values as you state and for the company it is an opportunity to reinstate the company’s values and expectations around customer service
    Thanks, Gabrielle

  • Reply

    Too bad the employees at Nordstrom are rewarded for occuring in customer stories. Their occurance in them should be rewarding enough!
    (Financial) rewards for good behaviour (stemming from human values) have a negative effect on the same behaviour (it replaces the satisfaction of living out your values with the less satisfactory value of money).

  • George Theodoridis
    Reply

    “So what’s your story?” I’m sure that GM meant well. Emotional intelligence is another question. I wonder if a measure of EI is necessary to be a good corporate story user. Or could could it work the other way around – could developing skills in story be a way of developing this GM’s (read: execs I have known) EI?

    • Gabrielle Dolan
      Reply

      George you make some great points. I am sure the GM meant well but not understanding why that question just does not work. And yes EI and good corporate storytelling could be a chicken and egg thing, what does come first? I would also throw the ability to story listen (really story listen) into the EI mix. I think you are right that people with high EI probably are naturally more inclined to story tell and story listen and perhaps the more you practice this skill it will have a positive impact on your EI. Food for thought!!!!
      Gabrielle

    • Yamini Naidu
      Reply

      Love this comment yes do think EI and storytelling go together..and both can be taught and learnt…Hooray! And I’m sure too the GM meant well – thought it would work as a conversation starter not realising it had the exact opposite impact…now that would take EI.
      Thanks George.
      Regards
      Yamini

  • Reply

    I found this post refreshing, especially in calling out the overuse of ‘story’ in business and other realms. as you noted, better to ask questions that get you to the core of stories rather than the blunt ‘what’s your story?’ I’m giggling because it sounds so outdated as I type it — akin to ‘what’s your sign’ from decades ago!

    • Yamini Naidu
      Reply

      Thank you Linda. Imagine being asked for your star sign, times have changed and for the better!
      Best wishes
      Yamini

  • David Thompson
    Reply

    Great post Gabrielle and Yamini

    Love the practical tip – “For example every register at Nordstrom stores has pen and paper for customers to share their customer service experiences. Every morning before each store opens, Nordstrom employees gather in the main lobby for the store manager to share some of the best experiences from the previous day and reward the employees in those stories.”

    Thank you

    David Thompson

  • John Katanas
    Reply

    Story telling also tends to be more engaging i find because people are often sick of the usual corporate tripe & rhetoric that is dished out time & time again. They switch off, go into convulsions, think of something else or go into silent storytelling themselves, to pass the time 🙂

    In my experiences, people also really love a good story because it is different from the norm. They listen. You have them. You are more than halfway there as a result……

    • Yamini Naidu
      Reply

      John you are right on the money. Storytelling is refreshing, engaging and memorable, but sadly just rebranding the usual corporate tripe as storytelling simply isn’t. Love storytelling but have no time for just sticking the ‘story label’ on everything whether it is or not.
      Thanks so much for your comments.
      Yamini

  • Reply

    These are such good ideas for clearer communcation. And isn’t it so ironic when a push to improve communication (story telling) turns into a new piece of jargon. Frustrating!

    • Yamini Naidu
      Reply

      Thanks Kath. Hopefully as storytelling has stood the test of time it can withstand its bastardisation through jargon? We live in optimistic hope.
      Regards
      Yamini

  • Gabrielle Dolan
    Reply

    Yes Kath, we are one the look out for overuse of the word ‘story’. It is everywhere. When I here people say ‘this is our story’ ranging anywhere from a 50 page strategy document to a 4 word tagline, I ask them to point me to the story. There normally is not one.
    Gabrielle

  • Gabrielle Dolan
    Reply

    John you are so right. When people start to share stories in a business situation is it so refreshing. People actually listen and absorb the information. Done right they are a very powerful way to communicate.

    Gabrielle

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