The Four Truths of Corporate Storytelling

Hard-nosed executives think ‘storytelling’ dilutes their message. They see it as ‘acting’, as being somehow less than authentic with an audience.

Nothing is further from the truth.

The Storyteller So gather round people wherever you roam; draw closer; are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. This is a tale of a filmmaker, Peter Gruber, whose really good article in the December Harvard Business Review reveals the Four Truths of the Storyteller.

Obviously, the corporate storyteller has nothing to do with the Gandalf figure above, or the ‘nighty-night’ bedtime stories we tell our children when they go Up The Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire. No. But there’s a lot of this cultural baggage around ‘telling stories’ that the executive communicator needs to overcome.

Gruber is an experienced executive and filmmaker (he produced The Color Purple and Midnight Express) ideally situated to distill the essence of good storytelling into a business setting. His HBR article does this by discussing Four Truths.

One: Truth to the Teller

Authenticity is crucial for the storyteller. His story must be congruent with his tongue, feet and wallet. He must show and share emotion. This requires vulnerability, or what my friend Lee Glickstein calls relational presence. The good news is you can practice being in relationship just like you practice your golf swing. And people on a podium who don’t practice this as often as they should are as embarrassing as any duffer on the green.

Gruber tells us that the main challenge for the corporate storyteller is to appeal to the listener’s emotions as well as their logical minds:

He must enter the hearts of his listeners, where their emotions live, even as the information he seeks to convey rents space in their brains.

One way to connect is to use what ad-meister Roy H. Williams calls Magic Words:

Learn to choose words whose unconscious associations will accelerate your message: “I stepped into lemon sunshine that was vivid, startling and bright.” In that short sentence, one tart word, “lemon,” added the sparkle. Had I written, “I stepped into the bright yellow sunshine of a summer’s day,” the oatmeal droning of an unthinking writer would have only just begun.

Two: Truth to the Audience

Gruber counsels executives to research the audience and understand what his listeners know about, care about, and want to hear. Beyond presenting facts that will satisfy the intellectual needs of a particular crowd, the speaker must, again, get the emotional arc right. One way to do this is tell the story in an interactive fashion helping people see themselves as the hero of the story. Make the ‘I’ in your story become the ‘we’.

Three: Truth to the Moment

This moment is different from any before and this
moment is different it’s now.
The Incredible String Band – This Moment

Never tell a story the same way twice. The context is always part of the story. The challenge, especially for a CEO, is to tell the same story over and over again and make it sound fresh each time.

Jack Welch does not mince words when recalling what a challenge this is:

Like every goal and initiative we’ve ever launched, I repeated the No. 1 or No. 2 message over and over again until I nearly gagged on the words. I tried to sell both the intellectual and emotional cases for doing it. (Jack: Straight from the Gut, p. 109)

Four: Truth to the Mission

The job of the corporate storyteller is to capture the mission in a story that evokes powerful emotions and wins the assent and support of his listeners.

In Summary

What makes a good presentation? It’s something beyond the PowerPoint your graphics wizards can cook up. It’s beyond the facts your investor relations and corporate communications department can load you up with. It’s beyond the supporting videos and carefully orchestrated cameo appearances your marketing and PR guys fund.

At the end of the day it’s as simple as your ability to tell a story.

Are you sitting comfortably?

3 Comments so far
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Great article – can I have your permission to reprint it in our corporate newsletter to current and prospective clients in Taiwan? I will credit your authorship and include a link to your blog.
Thank you,
Dan Mitchell

Stories are indeed the most important tool for a speaker. Interesting, relevant stories will mask almost any other speaking flaws.

Brilliant! This information is most useful to me, thank you.

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