I have always been easily distracted by a good story. In my earliest memories, I remember willingly eating my vegetables, brushing my teeth, and going to bed early solely to hear my parents share the tales of “The Giving Tree,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory,” “Charlotte’s Web,” or “Winnie-the-Pooh.” I loved listening to stories, and quickly grew to love creating them. I most certainly remember my tween years when my friends and I started going to the movies on Friday nights and, later, when I snuck away from my college courses on Tuesday afternoons to catch the matinee.
As a result of this love that started years ago, I have been a producer of media for most of my professional life. What I’ve learned along the way is that every piece of content—oral, written or filmed—has more success when it’s grounded in a good sense of story. Content can be a film, a marketing campaign, documentary series, a press release, a thesis paper, news report, a music video, an Instagram reel or a TikTok post. It can also be a simple conversation where you attempt to share your ideas among friends or colleagues. Storytelling has always been a part of our communications: the Chauvet Cave in France is one of the oldest representations of storytelling found thus far, dating back to 30,000 B.C. We are all storytellers; it is in our DNA.
However, one area of storytelling that fascinates me most right now is corporate storytelling. A corporation is more than a business. It becomes a community; one that is defined not only by what it sells but also by its values and people. More and more, businesses are being asked to identify what and who they are by multiple stakeholders: the shareholders, the customers, and (increasingly prioritized) their employees and future employees.
Storytelling in business is not a new concept
Effective marketing and advertising teams have harnessed the capacity of storytelling for decades—but the way storytelling is being used currently is evolving exponentially. The growing body of data that points to this is predominantly qualitative in nature, but quantitative stats are being collected rapidly. If disruption is a catalyst for change, then this evolution may be attributed in part to COVID-19. It necessitated a seismic shift in reckoning how society interacts and that affected how businesses operate. The need to forge connections and bring cohesion to a physically detached workforce became paramount to a company’s survival. Sharing stories, beginning with the shared experience of surviving the pandemic, is a natural means of connection, finding common ground between leaders and teams, coworkers, and even between companies and their customers.
Beyond the initial two years of the pandemic lockdown, storytelling continues to be thoughtfully implemented. Its power—not just as a sales tool but for business as a whole—is being more fully understood and embraced throughout the corporate world. In a study by McKinsey that defined the skills that will help people thrive in the future of work, storytelling was one of the key foundational skills identified.
Is it any wonder that—from marketing strategies to shareholder meetings, inclusivity initiatives to Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting, and from redefining how work gets done to how businesses survived in the wake of the pandemic—business leaders are embracing storytelling as the key to success in all facets of business, external and internal alike?
Why is corporate storytelling important?
Sales and marketing teams are the most practiced at storytelling, but in the era of too much information and, even more, misinformation, honing the right story of your company has never been as crucial, and the rules have changed. Trust in a product or service is imperative and must be impervious for its survival. It is no longer a question of whether any press is good press. Social media has changed the game forever and “cancel culture” can be a death knell. A company that wants to survive and thrive must have a great story—one that is relatable, memorable, universally embraced on many corporate levels, and most importantly, it must be authentic. Faux enthusiasm and positivity as the face of a business is no longer embraced by consumers, if anything, it is shunned. Likewise, younger professionals are demanding honesty and authenticity of their workplaces, that skeletons in the closet must not be hidden, but dealt with transparently in the story of how a company is learning and changing. Millennials are 22 times more likely to stay with a company long term if they believe it has a “high-trust culture” (Gen Zers are 16 times more likely). Furthermore, Gen Zers rank a company’s core values and commitment to global citizenship and sustainability initiatives higher than salary.
Where is storytelling taking place?
Storytelling in corporations is taking place at all levels. Top-down storytelling is paramount in creating a business’s narrative to compete in the marketplace and set the tone. Personal storytelling has always had a place in creating a great brand story of overcoming hardships and personal challenges, such as Richard Branson speaking openly about struggling with dyslexia and Howard Schultz working his way out of childhood poverty in the Bronx. Today, the best leaders are sharing deeply personal stories within their companies to create safe spaces for employees and stronger, more inclusive corporate culture.
2. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEI&B)
In the case of inclusivity initiatives for instance, new and existing employees want to hear about their company’s DEI&B efforts from the experiences of their coworkers across the company, rather than through assurances from upper-level management. The most successful corporate storytelling is often from the bottom up and across teams.
3. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)
Leaders for ESG endeavors, also sometimes referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), are also recognizing that they must embrace storytelling to be effective and own the narrative about their organization’s efforts to grow and effect change from within and without. These initiatives have been almost exclusively driven by the collection and dissemination of data and statistics and are perfect examples of telling stories with metrics, which leads us to…
4. Data Storytelling
Data has always dominated the business world, and the deluge is only growing as our lives rely increasingly and irreversibly on a digital world. The demand for research analysts is expected to grow by at least 19% from 2021 and 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But with all that data, companies need to make sure they are conveying the intended message. That is why job descriptions for data and research analysts now often include requirements for storytelling skills. Some companies are even creating data storytelling positions.
When spreadsheets are no longer enough
Yet, facts and figures have never been sufficient. This is where the science of storytelling comes into play. Listening to a story engages the entire brain. It evokes emotion. It creates a shared experience between the listener and the teller. Therefore, when a CEO shares their quarterly report with its shareholders, or the marketing team disseminates its strategy with the salesforce—not in numbers and percentages earned or needed but rather through story—that message is conveyed and received and remembered exactly as intended. Data, beyond being tough to discern and understand—and sometimes quickly forgotten—is open to interpretation. The brain is apt to come to an unwanted conclusion regarding its meaning. This graphic created for a sales team is an excellent explanation of a brain processing data versus a brain processing a story (not to mention an excellent example of visual storytelling in its own right).
The bottom line
A new era of corporate storytelling has emerged in tandem with a new era in business, and the consensus is they are both here to stay.
- Remote and hybrid work requires the enhanced communication that personalized storytelling can foster to ensure ongoing team engagement in the absence of office proximity.
- A normalization of storytelling in office interaction should also bolster DEI&B efforts, which are partially dependent upon authentic shared experiences from leadership and among employees to be truly successful.
- A combination of storytelling and authenticity is surging across corporate culture; from consumer demand for brands they can both trust and respect, to conveying a business’s commitment to social responsibility and sustainability (i.e. ESG).
- Leaders and managers are creating safe spaces for employees to tell personal stories by sharing their own.
- Employees are being encouraged to share/exchange stories with customers, to build even more trust and glean intimate, authentic brand stories to share with stakeholders and in marketing campaigns.
Corporations that have yet to introduce storytelling into their culture can use any of these areas as an entry point to start their journey. Now is the time. In the ever-expanding digital landscape, business is homing in on data storytelling as a fundamental skill of the future and quantitative studies as to its efficacy are forthcoming. As the power of storytelling continues to be understood and utilized and quantitative data becomes available, we will share more insights and strategies for incorporating storytelling into your corporate culture.
If you need help developing a strong company culture, register for this UKG webcast “Rated G: Becoming Great For All” featuring Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, and Brian K. Reaves, Chief Belonging, Diversity, and Equity Officer at UKG.
Cecily applies her 25 years of experience in Design Thinking and leadership training to innovate and improve employee experiences through new UKG products and services. Look out for her next post on “data storytelling.”