As marketers, we’re all familiar with the power of storytelling in helping to achieve brand and product engagement. To quote an article from Marketing Week last year, “a strong story based in reality will bring your message and values to life in a way the consumer can believe in”.
It’s not too much of a leap for us, then, to extend this thinking to our own careers. An ability to effectively tell stories can not only be used to engage consumers with our products but also colleagues and contacts with ourselves, to build relationships and make an impact.
Storytelling in the context of your career creates significant personal benefits. For the storyteller, the process of sharing a story helps to reinforce a sense of identity and encourages personal growth, according to psychologists (see ‘Selves Creating Stories Creating Selves’, McLean et al, 2007).
Let’s say, for example, I tell a story about the times I have overcome challenges in my career; the research shows that I am therefore more likely to see myself as a resilient person, able to deal with future change and challenge.
When done effectively, sharing personal stories improves rapport, trust and empathy between people, creating strong foundations for effective work relationships.
What are personal stories?
Personal stories are real or imagined accounts of events that describe experience. For some people, stories are based on situations they themselves have encountered, but retelling other stories can also be effective if it is done in your own tone of voice and imbued with your own meaning.
Some people feel that they don’t have meaningful stories to tell; that people want to hear about great achievements like scaling Kilimanjaro or overcoming personal adversity.
A story about everyday life told well can be just as engaging as stories about significant life achievements
However, the most important thing is how you tell the story and convey its meaning.This ‘everyday storytelling’ is a skill exhibited extremely well by writers like Dave Trott and Seth Godin.
While some people are natural storytellers, it’s important to recognise that storytelling is a skill that can be learned by everyone, but we all need to start somewhere. There are three main stories that will help you most fundamentally at work.
The ‘what I stand for’ story
Of course you can just tell people what’s important to you when you’re building relationships, but supporting that with a story makes it much more genuine. For example, I can tell people that growth is one of my personal values, which they might nod along to and accept.
But they will believe it far more when I tell them the story about how my perseverance to get funding to do my MBA finally came to fruition. From my aborted first MBA through to my current study experience – achieved by winning a scholarship with the 30% Club, a campaign that aims to achieve the goal of 30% of FTSE 100 boards being made up of women. In sharing this story, people will understand why growth is important to me and how it drives me.
To tell your ‘what I stand for’ story, first be clear on what is important to you in and out of work. Write these things down and think through why they are important to you and how they drive you. Then think of examples that demonstrate these things. Practise saying these examples out loud and articulating them as your personal stories.
The ‘instilling confidence’ story
We all face different challenges in our jobs and companies. These challenges can seem unique to us, based on our individual operating contexts, however they can generally be simplified into a few specific challenge categories. For example, we all are likely to have examples of challenges related to organisational change, market competition and interpersonal conflict.
When these challenges are present at work, people can feel nervous and vulnerable. In such times, stories can become immensely powerful for people to hook onto.
Telling stories about how you have overcome such challenges can engender confidence in others and increase your credibility
For example, if I tell people about how I dealt with change during my time at E.On and achieved positive outcomes by creating something better than existed before, people’s faith in my ability to do this again in a new organisation is increased. There is something more tangible and real in the sharing of the story than in just telling people ‘we’ll get through this together’, which can sound trite.
Think of one story that shows how you have approached each challenging scenario of organisational change, market competition and interpersonal conflict. If you feel there are more relevant challenges in your line of work, substitute those instead.
The ‘future I believe in’ story
For managers and leaders in particular, the ability to share ‘vision’ stories is very important in creating followership and commitment to a future state. Buy-in and belief from your team and colleagues is critical to success in these situations. Simply telling people where you’re going and why isn’t enough. A story can help you to sell that future. This is where weaving in other people’s stories or examples can be helpful.
For example, if I believed the future of my team was all about customer service, I might share the story about how people were so engaged in the work that Virgin Red did on a campaign last year that they turned up to the office with gifts for the team.
I would use this story to inspire people about the personal impact individuals can have without big budgets and significant resources. These stories can show people the art of the possible and inspire them about the things they presume to be impossible.
What is the future you are trying to engage people in? Can you think of examples from personal experience or from other organisations that you can weave into your narrative to bring your vision to life?
Storytelling is undoubtedly one of the skills we all need in our arsenal as marketers and broadening its application to your career, as well as your job role, will increase your expertise and your impact.
Helen Tupper is marketing director at Microsoft DX and founder of Amazing If.