Once upon a time…

Forget PowerPoint presentations - leaders need to be able to tell a good story if they are to make their ideas stick. Storytelling can help businesses to motivate staff and inspire brand loyalty. Now developments in the digital world are making this ancient art more relevant than ever.

Everyone loves a story – from exchanging gossip in the street to burying ourselves in a book or a favourite TV program, stories are at the centre of communities and cultures. In business too, stories have a key role to play. Stories are compelling – they make it easier to remember things and may contain important messages. They motivate people and inspire loyalty.

Paul Smith, a Director at Procter & Gamble, discovered the value of storytelling through his experience working with big business. “Storytelling isn’t always the right tool to help you manage things,” he says, “but it’s exceptional at helping you lead people.

“You can’t just order people to ‘be more creative’ or to ‘get motivated’ or to ‘start loving your job’. The human brain doesn’t work that way. But you can lead them there with a good story.”

Robert McKee, one of Hollywood’s most respected figures, agrees. As a screenwriting lecturer, he has trained over 60 Academy Award winners. He believes trying to persuade people solely by logic is not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.

“The other way to persuade people—and ultimately a much more powerful way—is by uniting an idea with an emotion,” explains McKee. “The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”

According to McKee, every good story centres on conflict. It starts with a routine situation – things are positive. Suddenly something throws life out of balance. The protagonist’s expectations conflict with the harsh realities of the situation. We then follow the protagonist as he or she struggles to overcome the problems and restore the balance.

During his career as a broadcaster and journalist, the BBC’s Gavin Esler has observed first-hand how world leaders use storytelling to connect with their followers and project a common purpose. In his book, Lessons from the Top, he notes how successful leaders use storytelling devices such as ‘earwigs’, which stick in your ear like the chorus of a pop song, or STAR moments – Something They’ll Always Remember, like Bill Gates opening a jar of mosquitoes at a malaria conference.

He points out that leaders often tell a powerful narrative about themselves with very few words. With his open-neck shirt and beard, Sir Richard Branson portrays himself as a cheeky anti-establishment figure. Steve Jobs, another master storyteller, presented himself as a geeky professor. When Nelson Mandela appeared at a rugby World Cup Final in a Springbok shirt, a symbol of white supremacy, it spoke of his new role as a leader of a ‘rainbow nation’.

But if storytelling is important for leaders, it is also important for brands. Levi’s, McDonald’s, Disney, Mercedes-Benz and the Australian mining industry are all examples of brands which have successfully differentiated themselves through stories.

In today’s market, however, storytelling is assuming a much greater significance for a number of reasons. Firstly, consumers are becoming more resistant to advertising messages. Jon Thomas, editor-in-chief of the blog Post Advertising, says that at one time, the winning brands were the ones which could afford the biggest billboards. Today this ‘brute-force method of advertising’ is losing effectiveness.

“Audiences simply have no patience for branded messages but they might spare 30 minute to watch something emotive and enjoyable,” he explains. “This is the dawn of the post-advertising age, in which the only messages people see and hear are the ones they choose to see and hear. Audiences don’t want to hear an advertisement. They want to be gripped by a compelling story.”

The prevalence of social media is another factor. Rather than relying on paid-for advertising, brands can now engage with audiences directly by creating and sharing media and publishing content. Content marketing, as it is known, is the very latest marketing technique, and storytelling is at its heart.

Coca-Cola is one of the companies leading the way in the new media landscape. In its video on YouTube, Jonathan Mildenhall, its Vice-President for Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence, says the company aims to move from creative excellence to content excellence.

Coca-Cola will ‘transform one-way storytelling into dynamic storytelling’ and ‘create ideas so contagious they cannot be controlled’, he explains. By provoking conversations with its audience, it hopes to earn a disproportionate share of popular culture and double the size of its business. Other brands are following suit with similar content marketing strategies.

As interest in storytelling grows, the number of consultants is on the rise. One Thousand & One, based in Melbourne, was established in 2005 by Yamini Naidu and Gabrielle Nolan. Yamini says storytelling is the number one business skill for the 21st century.

She believes that leadership is changing from an ‘inform and expect’ model to an ‘inspire and respect’ one. “Most people don’t need any more information thrown at them,” she says. “We are all drowning in a tsunami of information. What people need is leaders who can help them make sense of the information, and storytelling is a simple, yet powerful way to do that.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019