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The art of storytelling

We know that storytelling is the secret to influence and there is nowhere we need that more than in the urgent need for climate action. In this article, Kaushik Sridhar, KPMG’s manager, corporate citizenship, looks into some key points of effective storytelling.

What most organisations don’t realise when they get started on their “storytelling journey” is that there is no single right way to tell a story.

The most effective method of storytelling in communicating an organisation’s values is based on how the story resolves conflict of values. This is where different people in an organisation may have different interpretations of a company’s values and how they align with their personal values. One employee might be passionate about climate change and one might not. The story needs to accommodate both views and find a way to connect to both. Understanding the differences between values is key to effective storytelling.

Kaushik Sridhar

Kaushik Sridhar

Stories can be negative or positive in tone but each method has a different outcome.

A negative story is one where we paint the scenario as “doom and gloom” or “name and shame”. While useful in garnering people’s attention, it is unlikely to inspire and activate people towards taking action.

For example, if a firm’s air travel is on the increase, the story could be depicted in a way that paints the firm’s staff as flying way too much, costing the company a lot of money along with the high associated carbon emissions.

A positive tone is where we take the same scenario and mould it into an opportunity. For example, “We are investing in AR/VR technologies to better connect employees across different regions, removing the need to travel for basic meetings and providing more time to spend with families.”

A positive story can be a launching pad for people to spring into action.

In today’s world a lot of storytellers tend to take a “personal narrative” on storytelling. While this might be well narrated and sequential in order, it is unlikely to “wow” the audience into supporting something that could potentially be revolutionary for the organisation.

Key components of telling a good story include:

1. Finding the right stories in the workplace

Do a little digging and you can be certain to find rich content of stories from your professional and personal life that are ripe for the telling in a professional setting.

Research and find as many stories as possible within your organisation relevant to your idea or pitch. Data and insight are critical and tracking performance gives insight for making the next story even better. Create a library of stories that can be used whenever required. Mix professional and personal stories to keep the mood vibrant and alert.

2. Never tell a good story once

“A story is like a shoe, in that it needs to be broken in before it can be worn comfortably.”

When you deliver a story for the first time, it may not be your best effort. Even the second or third or fourth time may not be the best. Practice multiple times and perfect it. Like a shoe, once the story has been “broken in” you can use it as an effective engagement tool for a lifetime. The story will be etched in your brain forever for you to use in any situation that demands a good story.

3. Keep it fresh 

A lot of written material fundamentally fails because it doesn’t lead with the most interesting material. Usually with human stories the more emotive the tale and the more people can relate the better it will perform. People ultimately need to take a journey and identify with characters. When you tell the story commit to the delivery and keep it fresh.

4. Digital disruption to storytelling

Organisations need to add value and gain customer trust in order to ensure effective engagement. The digital age means that content needs to be in the right place at the right time and aimed at the right audience.

Successful storytellers already understand that the craft of storytelling is based not on sentences or smart tag lines, but on a journey in which characters represent our lives and desires. The story remains the same but the way in which it can be told and delivered in a more engaging way is the real advantage and challenge of the digital age.

5. Developing the right story is only half the battle

The most perfectly developed story will be totally ineffective if it isn’t delivered convincingly. The non-verbal aspects of delivery are important – the tone of your voice, the facial expression and the accompanying hand and body movements.

The manner in which a story is delivered can dramatically change its emotional tone in the mind of the listener. In embedding storytelling into the world of corporations and other organisations, it needs to be kept firmly in mind that storytelling is a tool to achieve organisational purposes, not an end in itself.

When introducing storytelling, therefore, a sharp focus needs to be kept on the business purpose being pursued with the tool, as well as on the different narrative patterns associated with different purposes.

In order to harness the full power of storytelling, by choosing the right narrative pattern for a particular purpose, and performing it in the right way to achieve organisational effectiveness, many organisations will need help. This could be from professional storytellers, corporate communications staff or people renowned in the industry for eloquent speeches (think Richard Branson or Sheryl Sandberg).

The ability to sell ideas in the form of a story is critical to career and organisational success.

Some great videos on storytelling include:

Storytelling is not something we do; storytelling is who we are. About 400,000 years ago humans gained control of fire and began telling stories around a campfire. I don’t believe we have changed a whole lot from those days.

Kaushik Sridhar is manager, corporate citizenship, at KPMG.

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