By now, most of us are familiar with "the irresistible power of storytelling as a business tool" (as Harvard Business Review describes it) to get people's attention, involve them emotionally and help them remember the content you're trying to convey.

But you may not know that the traditional way we think about storytelling--to create a big, sweeping hero story--is not the most effective way to use the technique at work.

Shawn Callahan, author of Putting Stories to Work, explains that when most people think of storytelling, they think big, like the "elaborately crafted stories we see in movies, novels, plays, and TV drama series" that use techniques like plot structure, character, and scene design.

There's certainly a lot to learn from that kind of storytelling, but it's not practical for everyday use in business, writes Callahan.

For example, consider the original 1977 Star Wars movie (also known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). The plot follows a classic hero's journey: An obscure protagonist (Luke) realizes that a princess (Leia) is in trouble. Luke then overcomes a series of challenges not only to rescue the princess, but also to save the rebels from the evil empire.

Although Star Wars is certainly compelling, it's way too complicated for stories we tell at work, says Callahan.

Instead, what's needed is what Callahan calls "small stories," the anecdotes concerning real-life experiences that people tell every day in conversations. In fact, when people talk informally, 65 percent of the time they are telling stories, according to research by evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar.

For leaders, small stories have big power. "Told consistently over time, small stories will help employees understand the concrete actions needed to get a job done, how to bring a value to life, and how to implement a strategy," Callahan writes.

How do you use small stories at work? Start by understanding the seven characteristics of a good business story:

  • Time. Stories occur at a certain moment. When you hear someone say, "Last week, this happened," that's the beginning of a story.
  • Place. For each story, you can picture a pin on a map. Here's an example: "We were at the sales meeting in Phoenix."
  • People. Movies may feature animals or aliens, but for business storytellers the focus is on people. "Here's how Joe overcame that obstacle..." or "The quality team needed to fix that glitch."
  • A series of events. Stories describe what happened first, then next, then after that. And the best stories have built-in tension. "When the system failed, our team had to quickly develop a way around the problem."
  • Surprise. Writes Callahan: "A story is a promise to share something the audience doesn't know. To qualify as a story, there must be something in it that's unanticipated. It doesn't have to be a great insight, but listeners should at least raise their eyebrows."
  • Relevance. Many stories you hear at work are entertaining, but aren't particularly illuminating. The best business stories provide context that supports the strategy or another key issue.
  • Emotion. As Callahan explains, "A story describes what happened. A good story helps you see what happened. And a great story helps you feel what happened."

Once you're comfortable identifying stories, you'll notice that they're everywhere in your organization. Now it's time to incorporate stories into your communication.

"While the storytelling habit takes time to develop, you don't have to be regimented to be successful," writes Callahan. "Look for times when you can make a point, tell a story to reinforce it, and collect your rewards from the faces of the people around you."

Published on: Feb 6, 2018