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Using stories to create a competitive advantage

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Most people have a capability to tell stories, however what makes the difference in terms of outcomes is understanding why a good story works, proactively developing appropriate stories for your audience and personalising them for impact. We know from both our experience and our research that stories can be used to engage, build mindshare and commitment with your customers and stakeholders.

Why are stories important?

Stories use the past, present and future to make a relevant point. They enable you to demonstrate humility and to relate to people in real terms and using their context. Stories also help customers and stakeholders grasp the meaning and importance of ideas, suggestions and opportunities and are powerful in creating memorable impressions and vivid images. Additionally stories create lasting impact where memos, slide presentations and mounds of statistics fall short. They engage others, because listeners can put themselves into the situations the stories describe, create and emotional connection and help to visualise a future state – and most importantly offer a personal approach in a complex connected world.

How do stories work?

Stories present a place where facts meet emotions and they have strong impact on a number of levels. Stories are important, because without stories, our brain cannot process information. Stories provide a reference point. Our brains are hardwired to process thoughts through stories; unless the left side of the brain (facts) and the right side of the brain (creative) connect, we cannot create memory. We need stories to make sense of the world, which is complex and scary. We need to tell stories to give the world familiar shape and form.
Stories teach us the rules of our world and our place in it. Families, religion, communities, corporations—they all have stories that let you know what is acceptable, what isn’t and what your role is. Our lives are really just a series of stories strung together – they are the building blocks of our lives and we use stories to distract and entertain us. Stories take us away from our reality and transport us to a place that we want to be.

How to develop and tell business stories?

Using a business focus ensures that the story is immediately relevant to the listener. It also helps you to plan, prepare and develop a story that really drives the outcomes you want to achieve. Once you are clear on the business focus, you can select the appropriate story content and story type to engage your audience and drive the outcomes:

• Illustrating vision and values to influence and energise your audience

This may involve demonstrating the importance of having a vision to drive action, the impact of having the ‘right’ values on achieving the right outcomes, and how together they provide a picture of the future and outline the behaviours to achieve it. You may wish your audience to be aware of your vision and values and/or adopt them.

• Increasing trust and collaboration

You may wish to illustrate the importance of trust to successful outcomes without being too direct; how trust can be given, lost, and rebuilt; how collaboration is a smarter and more effective way to work; and/or how to establish and sustain collaboration.

• Motivating your audience to take action

This may involve an example where one party takes action and another does not and how this impacts a successful outcome; how acting together makes sense and provides benefits for all; an illustration of why now and why this action and this audience, or the importance of capitalising on opportunities and creating a climate that motivates others to act. Your story may include a call for action.

• Navigating uncertainty and complexity

This may involve sharing stories of successful navigation through complexity or uncertainty and what actions were taken to deliver success, personal examples of strategies for coping with uncertainty and complexity, steps taken to reduce complexity, and the importance of strong leadership in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.

• Identifying who we are

This may involve stories about yourself, team, function, or organisation and should illustrate what you stand for and what gives you your unique identity. This could also involve stories around products and services and how you work with your customers.

• Knowledge Sharing

You may want to involve the audience in providing feedback and contributing their ideas. You also may want to draw out what was done and what contributed to success.

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