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ARTICLE InspirationJune 21, 2017

How storytelling can make your business


While many of us are descending into a world of corporate jargon and sales speak, the most effective leaders are telling personal stories to get their message across. Author of Stories for Work, Gabrielle Dolan, teaches us the art.

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What does storytelling in a business context mean to you?

To me what it means is that you use a personal story to get a business message across. Business stories are also effective but the most memorable way to get a message across is when you share a personal story – people connect and engage with it more and actually remember it. 

How did you discover the power of storytelling?

I discovered the power of storyteller when I was working as a senior leader at the National Australia Bank. What I noticed was there were leaders who told personal stories to get their message across and I remember thinking at the time that there was real power in this approach. That it was more effective and engaging and the storytellers came across as more authentic – it humanised them and made them more approachable as a leader. Over 12 years ago I left the bank and started researching this further to teach it.

How did you research it?

Fifteen years ago there was no one teaching this in Australia. There was a handful of people writing and talking about it in America and the UK. Steven Denning was one of them and he was an ex-exec at the World Bank and that made me think that there was something in this. I read books on the topic and drew from my own experience in leadership roles, thinking about what worked and what didn’t. The best way to become an expert in something is to teach it so over the last 12 years of teaching people around the world, I now have a methodology that gets results for my clients.

Tell me a bit about the science behind storytelling.

There’s a lot of research that talks about the science behind storytelling and the positive impact on our brain when we hear a story.

  • Research shows that when we hear a story, we feel a connection to the storyteller and it therefore increases our trust in them.
  • Stories are shown to grab our attention quickly and hold it for longer – so, compared to communicating with facts and figures, stories are far more effective. I have a saying that ‘bullet points enrage and stories engage’.
  • There’s also research proving that when people hear a story they are more readily able to grasp the meaning and, because it taps into emotion, remember it.

Can you give a quick rundown on your ‘four types of stories in business settings’?

When you share stories in business you need to make sure you have a variety of stories – you can’t just have the one or else people will start rolling their eyes when they hear it! I recommend that you have four types of stories, which explore:

1. Triumph – a story about when you’ve experienced success. It could be as simple as winning a race when you were 10 or coaching your child’s basketball team to their first win.

 2. Tragedy – when something has happened to you but not necessarily a tragic event; it could be a regret such as not taking on an work assignment that you later regreted.

3. Tension – when you’ve been perhaps divided in your loyalties such as a moment of choosing between a career opportunity and family and how you worked through that tension.

4. Transition – when you’ve moved countries, changed careers, got married… these stories talk about learning and values.

I imagine being a good storyteller involves quite a lateral brain – highlighting an idea or lesson through a possibly unrelated story. How do we gain that skill of constructing impacting stories rather than relying on corporate jargon?

You’re right – some people are natural storytellers but it is an absolute skill that can be taught and everyone can get better at it. When I run my workshops a lot of people come to me and say ‘I don’t have any interesting stories because I’m just average’ and I take them through a logical process that helps them find their potential stories. And once they realise it’s the day-to-day stories that people connect to, they understand that they do have a lot of stories. The next skill is helping them to work out how those stories can relate to their business message.

How can storytelling help win customers and what sort of formats/platforms would B2C storytelling take?

When we start sharing stories in a B2C environment we tend to talk about our products and services. And that’s valuable but one of the great ways to phrase it is how your products have helped people – you can almost make your customers the heroes in the story. There’s also a lot of power in sharing stories around your values. If you’ve got an interesting back story you should absolutely share that, too, but I’ve noticed there’s a trend to rename ‘About us’ on websites as ‘Our story’ and if you do that you really need to make sure you have a story, not just a timeline of the company’s development.

Who have you worked with on this and what sort of outcomes have they seen?

I’ve worked with a lot of Australia’s big companies such as BUPA and Australia Post, which I case study in my book. Australia Post has been going through some big changes that have been driven by eCommerce. I ran programs for them around the company values and their results have shown that employee ability to communicate those values has increased, as has employee engagement. Likewise I helped BUPA roll out global values through storytelling and they were just blown away with the results.

Did you know?

Gabrielle has some workshops coming up in Singapore, Melbourne and Sydney in August and September. Click here for more info, or check out online courses here.

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