The Untold Story: The Power of Corporate Storytelling

A good story well told stays with us. It fires our imagination, gets us emotionally engaged, and makes an impact, writes Ian Sanders.
Ian Sanders
Mar 28, 2017

Talk to the board about storytelling and you might get some odd looks. But storytelling is no longer the domain just of filmmakers and novelists. Businesses are harnessing its power to engage customers and employees, help align staff with strategy, communicate change, and even humanise a faceless corporation.

Consider the case of jeans manufacturer Hiut Denim. When Britain’s largest jeans factory, employing 400 people, closed down in 2002 the local town of Cardigan in west Wales was devastated. A decade later, local entrepreneur David Hieatt, realising that much of the manufacturing know-how remained in the town, brought back some of the old workforce. The story of a small local business rising from the ashes and taking on the global fashion brands, continues to inspire.

But it’s not just David v Goliath stories that resonate. In 2014, accountancy firm KPMG was looking to re-establish its sense of purpose and build an emotional bond with staff. It turned to storytelling. The firm’s ‘Higher Purpose’ initiative encouraged employees to share tales of purpose-driven work, by posing the question ‘What do you do at KPMG?’ Bruce N. Pfau, KPMG’s Vice Chair of Human Resources & Communication, explained in a Harvard Business Review article: ‘We encouraged everyone—from our interns to our Chairman—to share their own stories about how their work is making a difference.’ The firm collected 42,000 stories from 29,000 employees, far more than expected, sharing them internally and externally. According to KPMG’s annual partner survey, the initiative raised staff pride and engagement to record levels.

C-Suite is listening

Similarly, when technology company Cisco wanted to boost its brand among potential recruits, it asked employees to share photos and stories of why they chose to work at Cisco. This increased the company’s Twitter following four-fold in six months, and drove much more traffic to its job site.

The C-Suite is now listening. On becoming Microsoft CEO in 2014, Satya Nadella chose to give his first CEO interview not to a journalist but to the company’s in-house storyteller, as they walked around Microsoft’s Redmond offices. It was an effective way for Mr. Nadella to convey his background and ambitions to the company’s 120,000 global workforce, many of whom knew little about him. Microsoft also publishes a series of stories on its Microsoft Story Labs about everything from latest innovations to staff news, and has an Instagram account Microsoft Life that gives potential recruits a glimpse of life at the firm.

A good story is certainly more memorable than a spreadsheet, dataset or annual report

Companies don’t need a complex storytelling machine to tap its power. Sometimes, face to face communication works well enough. Carmine Gallo, author of The Storyteller’s Secret, tells how every Ritz-Carlton hotel holds a 15-minute departmental meeting each day where employees share accounts of great customer experiences. Mr Gallo says that this improves customer service. Meanwhile, Brian Chesky, who founded Airbnb from his three bedroom flat, uses a simple email to recall the early entrepreneurial spirit as he urges staff to keep challenging the status quo.

Telling tales

Stories can also bring data to life and make complex information more engaging. A good story is certainly more memorable than a spreadsheet, dataset or annual report. In The Science of Storytelling Prasad Setty, Google’s vice president of People Analytics and Compensation, noted that to communicate memorably about science and analytics you need a story to accompany the data. It is essential to engage audiences emotionally.

However, stories must be both credible and sustainable. Problems arise when they fail to reflect reality. This might occur because the company has changed or outgrown the narrative, or because business leaders fall into the trap of corporate mythmaking. Either way, employees must believe the tale or they won’t be influenced by it let alone share it—and the storyteller might even end up as the story.

How to tell a good corporate story

  • Pick a story that inspires you. If it doesn’t engage you, your team won’t be fired up either.
  • Keep it simple. Use the language of real life; avoid business jargon.
  • Keep it human. Your story should be about people not products or services.
  • Select the right channels for your audience: whether written, video or conference presentation.
  • Inspire your audience to action, to share the story, and to find out more.
  • Dig deep. Your business will have hundreds of hidden stories to capture and share.