Once upon a time, there was a magical CIO who always got his projects and budget requests approved, and never got stuck doing projects he didn’t want to do, and he and his company became prosperous and they all lived happily ever after. All because he learned the importance of storytelling.
Yes, that’s right. You got your computer science degree, you got your MBA, and now you have to learn the art of storytelling, too.
The book The Ten Faces of Innovation explicitly calls out “The Storyteller” as one of the ten roles a company needs to be innovative. “The Storyteller captures our imagination with compelling narratives of initiative, hard work, and innovation,” writes author Tom Kelley. “This person goes beyond oral tradition to work in whatever medium best fits their skills and message: video, narrative, animation, even comic strips. By rooting their stories in authenticity, the Storyteller can spark emotion and action, transmit values and objectives, foster collaboration, create heroes, and lead people and organizations into the future.”
Storytelling is particularly important for startup companies looking for funding, writes Matt Asay. After all, they may not even have a product to show—just a good story about what it would be and what people could do with it, someday, if they only got the funding. “Quality storytelling could be the difference between getting funded or not, and getting customers…or not,” he writes.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to come up with the stories
Note that the storytellers don’t necessarily have to have invented the story, writes Julianne Wurm in the Harvard Business Review. Instead, they are the carriers. “The carrier is the person who brings the idea into the common vernacular,” she writes. “They make fresh connections and present cogent arguments. They are critical in getting ideas to take hold.” Authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Oliver Sacks have made millions on the concept.
It’s no coincidence that some of the most enduring television shows are the ones that explicitly called out storytelling, even in their theme songs.
Can you read those and not automatically hear your brains singing the next lines? Bet you can’t. And they’re almost fifty years old.
Storytelling in the age of social media
The ability to tell a story is particularly important in social media, which depends on material going “viral.” Author and professor Jonah Berger, in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, called the ability to tell a story one of the six critical factors in what makes something go viral. “Build a narrative, build a piece of content, build an engaging vessel or carrier that allows your brand to come along for the ride,” he said in a podcast about the book.
“‘Shareability’ is now a key ingredient of any successful brand narrative that has a chance of resonating with the consumer,” agrees Debi Kleiman in the Harvard Business Review on how storytelling is the primary job of the CMO. “Connect to emotions and ideas that are bigger and more interesting than selling your products, and they will speak for themselves.”
It might seem like a challenge to do this, particularly on a social media platform like Twitter, with its 140-character limit. But it doesn’t take much to tell a story—just a few words. The seminal example, (incorrectly) attributed to Ernest Hemingway, takes just six words: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Why is storytelling so important?
It’s hard to say why storytelling is important, but its impact is not limited to the corporate world. In cities ranging from Boise to Manhattan, storytelling groups are springing up that get standing-room-only audiences to hear stories—not to mention TED and its various offshoots.
Perhaps, to recall John Naisbitt’s concept of “high tech/high touch,” the recent uptick in interest in storytelling is a reaction to our whole “Big Data/always on our smartphones” lifestyle. A good story reminds us that not everything can be expressed in 1s and 0s. Even with Big Data itself, people are urging that it be used to tell stories, not just as data in and of itself—a lesson learned well by the Obama campaign, which hired social scientists to craft stories from the data it had collected. More than one executive is urging other executives to hire liberal arts graduates, such as English majors, to make sure their organizations retain the art of storytelling.
“There are many examples of ideas that have taken off not because they were new or novel but because they were finally discussed in such a way as to make them more compelling to audiences,” writes Wurm. In other words, they finally found the right storyteller.
Oh, and the magical CIO? Unfortunately, he still got stuck doing some projects he didn’t want to do. This was a story, not a fairy tale.
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