Storytelling is a very old technique, dating back throughout most of human history. The practice is embedded into our culture; it was the primary form of family entertainment before the television (which is a different medium for story telling), it is mastered by competent politicians and journalists, and it remains as one of the most effective ways to reach someone and move them with your message.
Stories can be used to shape vision, to pass on knowledge and wisdom, and to shape identity and organizational culture. Storytelling is regarded as one of the most effective and influential techniques, and has been documented extensively in numerous fields. Sole & Wilson (2002) identify the role of storytelling as follows:
- Share norms and values: Stories act as a medium for passing on values and creating vision.
- Develop trust and commitment: Personal stories can communicate one's own ability and commitment, as well as conveying openness by sharing something personal. Organizational stories influence the perceived trustworthiness of the firm and its management (either positively or negatively).
- Share tacit knowledge: Enables the users to articulate tacit knowledge and communicate with feeling, which helps them convey more than they realize that they know (Weaver 2005 in Bali et al 2009).
- Facilitate unlearning: Unlearning often requires more than rational arguments. It needs an intuitive and emotional anchor, which stories can provide.
- Generate emotional connection: We connect with stories emotionally and a story that has had an impact on us will be easily recalled long into the future.
Bali et al (2009) talk of the power of the narrative. The best narratives must have a beginning, middle, and an end. The more interesting and powerful, the more likely it is that they will be remembered. Steve Denning (2000) adds a number of other characteristics of a good story, including:
- Focusing on the positive (a "happy ending"), and conveying success stories.
- Having a "hero", and be told from that person's perspective
- Having an unusual plot - something that captures our attention.
The narrative can make use of more or less any verbal or written form of communication, as well as images, video, etc.
Liebowitz (2009) refers to storytelling as the organization's oral histories. According to him, stories can capture knowledge and routines of the past, enabling workers in the present to adapt it to the new conditions.
Offering more specific guidelines for using stories is impossible, since they will each depend upon the context of the organization. However, management should be aware of their importance and influence, and of their potential as a change agent.
One example of the way storytelling is managed is offered by Jeff Hester (2011). He outlines an example of how storytelling is used successfully at Fluor. One of the formal techniques employed by management aims to collect stories from the employees through a form that respondents fill out. In it, they are asked to share their success stories, describing why they consider it a success and what value it generated (Hester 2011).
Stories can thus be organizational - capturing history, culture, wisdom, etc.- or they can be leadership tools. For the latter, it is used by the leader to achieve a desired effect. Sole & Wilson (2002) offer a few considerations for the use of storytelling in this way:
- Be clear on why you are telling it
- Keep it simple and accessible
- Try using more than one medium
- Monitor how the story is received
- Hone your story-listening skills
Callahan (2018) emphasizes that many times what organizations refer to as stories are really non-stories. For instance, a manager talking about the company’s position and vision is not a story, neither are opinions, statements, etc. A key skill is therefore the ability to spot and tell a true, effective story. According to Callahan, the impact of stories can be described as:
- A story describes what happened
- A good story helps you see what happened
- A great story helps you feel what happened