The Power of Storytelling in Business
When giving a presentation or pitch, weave a narrative around the numbers to keep listeners engaged.
Digital Exclusive - 2019
A storytelling approach helps your audience grasp and retain your key point or message, but it can also help demonstrate the ways finance can support other teams' activities and ultimately foster collaboration in a previously siloed organization.
We make sense of the world by turning what happens into stories. Stories help us manage the chaos and turn it into something we can understand and follow.
From an early age we love stories, and we often want to hear the same tales over and over. Even though we've heard the story many times before, we laugh at the same funny bits, shudder at the same scary scene, and relish the heroine's triumph when it all works out OK in the end.
Think about your own favorite story. As you replay it in your mind, your brain works hard to trigger the old, familiar emotional responses whilst releasing the requisite hormones: cortisol for the tense or scary bits, oxytocin when something cute or affectionate happens, and dopamine at the happy ending. Neurologically, emotionally, and physically, we relive our stories when we retell them. Our brains are wired to create a narrative.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER IN BUSINESS?
Good storytelling can help people better understand what you're saying and remember the information more clearly. It is also more likely to lead to a favorable response, which is particularly desirable if you're pitching for investment or looking for business case approval. Stories also reach the parts facts and analysis don't: our hearts. That's why they can inspire and motivate us so much. In short, your pitch, presentation, or report is far more likely to succeed if you can trigger the right emotional response in your audience at the right time.
Back in the 1990s, I led the finance team in a division responsible for building submarine cable systems and designing communication satellites. Most staff members were very intelligent engineers who seemed not to care much about money. To be honest, they didn't appear to care much about anything except what they were working on, their pet projects.
Every quarter I had to stand up and talk to them about how the division was doing financially, encouraging them to spend less or sell more of their services. I thought that, since they were engineers, they would like loads of detail, so my first presentation was basically columns of numbers with explanations alongside in a tiny font nobody could read. People actually fell asleep. My boss was not happy.
The next time, I had one slide with a few key numbers on it. I talked about those numbers, telling the story of how we hit or missed our targets, name-checking the people involved, and highlighting their contributions and achievements. I also told the story of what our performance so far was going to mean for the rest of the year and what impact it would have on the division as a whole and the team as individuals. Who isn't interested in what their bonus will be? This time people were engaged and motivated. They asked questions and made good suggestions for improving the numbers.
Engaging people through this type of storytelling approach opened up the lines of communication, and staff members began to contribute ideas about saving the company money, improving sales, and improving performance. Realizing that finance staff weren't there just to say "no" to requests, colleagues began to seek my help in crafting a narrative around their technical business cases and began to understand that involving finance right from the beginning increased the likelihood their case would be approved.
Here are my tips for telling a good business story:
Set the scene. State what your aim is, or what you're asking for, at the beginning of the story. That establishes the context for everything that follows.
Ditch the detail. You have to do the work, and that supporting data has to be available. But don't drone through pages of facts and figures. Your audience can check out all the background later or ask for clarification if they need it. Include only the really important details, and get to the point quickly.
Focus on the benefits. Everyone listening is wondering, "What's in it for me?" So be clear about the good things in your report, proposal, or business case. Draw their attention to the positive impact your presentation will have on the company, division, people, and stakeholders involved.
Talk about the problems. A story without difficulties is just plain boring; we like to hear how our heroes overcome adversity. It's also unrealistic of course. So, talk about the challenges, too, but make sure you can say how they can be mitigated or overcome.
Get to the why. In a 2009 TED Talk, author Simon Sinek explained why purpose, that inner drive to do something that benefits the wider world, matters so much. A company's aim is usually to make money, of course, but for those who prioritize being authentic and ethical businesses, their "why" is often around making life better in some way. Including these softer benefits in your story will make it more interesting and engaging.
Jackie Fitzgerald is a UK-based coach who specializes in helping professionals fulfill their potential. This article first appeared in Financial Management magazine.