empathy

Four missteps organizations make with storytelling

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If you asked a variety of people in different roles across your organization – what’s our company story? –what kind of reaction would you get? Would your colleagues accurately tell the company story? Chances are you might hear them say something like: “that’s not part of my role” or “marketing is in charge of that” or “I don’t really know.”

It begs this important question about storytelling – whose job is it anyway?

The marketing department? C-suite? Management-level employees? Those working the front lines with stakeholders? Sales teams? People behind the scenes? Those with the longest history within the organization?

The short answer is – yes. Yes to all of them. Storytelling is everyone’s responsibility.

However, it’s not surprising to see most organizations delegate the role of storytelling to the marketing department.

This is misguided thinking and where many organizations miss the point of that all-too-trendy term – storytelling. Here are four missteps that organizations commonly make with storytelling.

 

1.     Confusing story management with storytelling

Someone or some assigned team needs to take the lead in unearthing and positioning the organization’s most important stories. It should be their task to write them down for the sake of sharing in-house with employees and externally/online for stakeholders and customers in a clear and consistent way. The marketing function is a logical choice for establishing these pieces and developing the repository where the organization’s history, key messages and must-share stories can be found.

But let’s be clear – this is simply the act of story management.

What we’re talking about is storytelling – the verbal articulation of something deemed important – and that should be everyone’s business.

 

2.     Failing to connect the story with actual storytellers

Most of us don’t like the idea of being marketed to or sold something, at least not until we are ready to engage on our own terms. That fact alone makes every other function outside of the marketing department, and the vast majority of employees in an organization, critical storytellers. When people within an organization are empowered to tell stories about the business and their business – what we do, why we do it (purpose), who we seek to serve, why it matters, how we’re different, and why you should care – it is no longer marketing or sales. It is the sharing of ideas and of a larger ideal. It is storytelling.  And this becomes immensely valuable in cultivating a desirable work culture, attracting and retaining new hires, and stirring the curiosity among people who become clients, customers and advocates.

 

3.     Overlooking the importance of empathy and delivery

Consider this excerpt regarding the nuance of story from the English novelist E.M. Forster:

 

“If I say to you the king died, and then the queen died, that is a sequence of events.

But if I said the king died, and then the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and on the part of the reader or listener of the story.”

 

Read this again:  “Empathy on the part of the teller of the story...”

That is significant.

If we rely on marketing for our stories but don’t have an intimate knowledge of those stories ourselves and how to tell them – with empathy – our attempt at telling stories becomes little more than a list of facts, talking points, or a sequence of events. Worse yet, if we rely solely on marketing to be the mouthpiece of our stories we miss untold opportunities to engage people on the importance of our purpose and our work.   

And there’s this:  “...and on the part of the reader or listener.”

This is an important reminder that our audiences will engage and process our stories differently.

Every time I deliver a messaging document to a client for the first time, I ask them if they will humor me as I read it aloud. They are perfectly capable of reading it on their own, but I know that people interpret what they hear differently from what they read. Inflection is added in the right places for needed effect, and my voice becomes the audible highlighter of words and ideas that they otherwise might skim over.

We need the marketing team’s help to craft stories and position them for a compelling read in all formats – from the tweet that piques interest, to the website copy, to tangible printed material that compels a stakeholder to slow down and sit with our words.

But we also need the c-suite to lead by example – to know and convey stories with the passion we should expect from leaders, so that managers and employees (as listeners) can make a personal connection and become storytellers themselves by following their lead.

 

Marketing has its place.

Content is valuable and can be readily accessible.

But there is no replacing the sound and impact of a point well-made coming from a leader. 

 

4.     Ignoring the history of a story and failing to pull from it

David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and well-known historian, said this about the importance of history and story in a 2004 commencement speech at Ohio University titled The Bulwark of Freedom:

We have to know who we are if we are to know where we are headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forbears did for us or we are not going to care about it very seriously, and it can slip away.”

While McCullough refers to the story of one’s country and the importance of knowing history as it informs the future of a nation, the same can be said for nearly any organization or institution. Past and present stories provide the factual and credible narrative needed to set us apart from others. It is what we must lean into, it is our compass as we seek to chart new and exciting futures. 

Is your organization recording the stories that matter by writing them down, reciting them and sharing them regularly?

Do you and the people in your organization know its rich history, its defined purpose and how it intends to make a difference?

This isn’t arbitrary work. Your organization’s reason for being is rooted in story.

If you don’t know the story, you can’t tell it.

And if it’s not seen as something to take seriously, then there’s truly a lot at risk of slipping away.