Why Every Business Needs A Chief Storyteller
Business, quite simply, is providing a product/service for a price. But, to who? Clients are people who see economic value in the product or service. If they don’t pay a price, there can be no financials to begin with.
The origin of every great company was a desire to change things. This endeavor continues every day. A result of this constant challenge to do good by the client are the financials. For every stakeholder — a speculator, a trader, a long term shareholder, analysts and the media, the story behind the numbers is truly what everybody is interested in.
I have been to enough Annual General Meetings (AGM’s) to tell you many people are interested in dividend announcements and consume a large amount of caffeine to get them through an annual ritual.
Whether it is putting people in their homes through a mortgage or improving hygiene by using personal care products or software that simplifies accounting, every business application has a human story. My simple question is this: what if more companies actually use client stories to drive financial presentations ?
Let me take an antithetical approach and begin with the main criticisms to my suggestion of having a Chief Storyteller:
Surely you must be joking, Mr. Kothari? What a preposterous suggestion? Ridiculous, I say.
“Sounds like an abuse of a perfectly good marketing tool. People can spin yarns without touching the truth”
“Investors are more interested in the financials. Lets not waste anybody’s time”
Aren’t there enough Chief Officers in the alphabet soup to suggest adding one more?
I acknowledge all of these criticisms and understand why they can be raised. Granted that a Chief Storyteller (CSO) sounds like a radical and possibly ridiculous idea. However, I am not trying to add to headcount, I am simply saying there needs to be a CSO. A CEO could be a CSO or one can be chosen from other business leaders. The Public Relations (PR) or Corporate Communications team could include a Chief Storyteller. In case of a new venture, either the entrepreneur or a member of his team can master the art of storytelling.
At the end, its important to remember that financials are an outcome of putting a smile or a frown on people’s faces and therefore should be treated as the end result of a human endeavor i.e. business. Instead, we focus on financials and tell the story later. Sometimes, we don’t even tell the whole story.
A Personal Story
Now that I have tried to acknowledge critics earlier, let me begin with a personal story. In my high school days, I was mortally afraid of mathematics. I am sure it sounds familiar to many. It was not until I found a great teacher that instilled a love of mathematics using storytelling as the medium of instruction. Of course, he was great at storytelling. But, he was also great at creating a connection with people. From that phase in my life to today, I have always loved great stories and I am sure most people do. And, I love maths as a subject.
What Does Research Say?
Paul Zak, an American Neuroeconomist, in his research on why human brains love stories has this to say:
1. As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.
2. More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.
(Source:HBR, October 24, 2014)
Paul also advises businessmen to begin every presentation with a compelling, human scale story.
A Case Study in Storytelling: Microsoft Corporation
Microsoft has embraced storytelling by encouraging Microsoft stakeholders to tell their story. In fact, Microsoft has a portal dedicated to stories:
Microsoft Story Labs
Get an inside look at the people, places and ideas that move us.
Going one step further, Steve Clayton is the Chief Storyteller at Microsoft. His LinkedIn Bio reads:
“We’re responsible for Microsoft’s company storytelling both internally and externally with a mission to change the perception of Microsoft through stories. I believe that in this era of being bombarded information and data, stories are what stick. They can be long stories, short stories, photos, cartoons, a keynote a demo and more — but stories, about real people doing amazing things”
Steve Clayton | LinkedIn
Explored Microsoft from the inside and told stories to the world through media management, blogging, events and more.
Angela Arhendts, Apple’s SVP of Retail is re-designing the Apple store to create a local connection with people. Apple also introduced ‘Today at Apple to introduce its clients to events happening at their local Apple store:
Today at Apple - Apple
Do more of what you love with inspiring programs happening every day at Apple. Find out what's going on near you with…
Starbucks, to a large extent, is about a story and an experience. A story about Howard Schultz experiencing a flavor of cafeterias in Italy.
Today, its not just about the technology but also about the lives of users that are translated into beautiful U/X and design. User interface and the emotions it evokes should be connected to everyday lives in order to make every touch point a beautiful experience.
There are some companies that have embraced the art of storytelling as a powerful tool but it would be great to see more embracing the human side of business.
A lot of people may say advertising and marketing are the right avenues for storytelling. That is true but what if every touch point with stakeholders is designed to tell a story more frequently until it becomes a strong belief and ultimately an instrument to align all stakeholders to the vision of the management for the company.
Very often, seasoned Venture Capitalists (VC’s) can cut through fiction to identify the true value of a new venture. They don’t need drama and histrionics but a good story, that is also the truth. A good story can describe how a venture came into being, what it can do for its clients in terms of resolving pain points or adding value and how it has actually put a smile on clients faces. This can then lead into discussions around the economic value and therefore the price charged for the platform/product/service, revenue model and the financial projections.
An honest client testimonial, subject to legal approvals and other disclosures, could really change the conversation between a VC and an entrepreneur. While past financials can provide evidence of past performance of an entrepreneur, a well told client story can provide evidence of future potential of the platform/product/service. The VC can also guage how client focused a CEO truly is.
Lot of startups just put names of their clients and what the startup did for the clients business but very few have video testimonials of clients in a story form.
A beautifully created website that tells stories in video format and tempts users to come back to it every time can be a very powerful anchor for potential clients.
Any topic or subject including calculus, the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), Econometrics as well as Quantum Physics can be made interesting if taught in a manner that connects with most students especially at a young age. Before going into the mechanics of any complex topic, it could be worthwhile to explain how it came into being. For instance, Kekule August discovered the structure of Benzene in his dreams.
Imagine if Financial Education is combined with Storytelling to improve retention and understanding. I am sure there are many out there who do use storytelling as a tool but I recommend it to many more.
Like any powerful tool, storytelling can be abused to mislead the audience. Numbers can be manipulated to create evidence for a fictional story. It can also be taken to an extreme. But, if used wisely, storytelling can establish a lasting bond.
Financial derivatives were thought of as ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ but did we stop using them? Stock markets are always compared to casinos. Have we stopped investing? No, we always try to regulate misbehavior and learn from our mistakes. Storytelling is no different.
With this, I want you to imagine a quarterly earnings call or an Annual General Meeting (AGM) where investors and analysts ask the Chief Storyteller: “What is The Story that has translated into the financials this accounting period?” instead of the other way round.
While you may disagree and I totally understand that, I want you to remember these words by Abraham Lincoln:
“In order to win a man to your cause, you must reach his heart, the great high road to his reason”
And so, yes, it can be business as usual but nothing stops a business from appealing to the heart before it appeals to the mind.
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