Why executives suck at telling stories

Annette Simmons knows a thing or two about stories.

She’s big on storytelling as a fundamental process in business. Storytelling creates all meaning. Especially where we spend our time working. The stories we tell about a corporation create the identity, the values. They sustain or change the culture.

Most of us are naturals when it comes to storytelling. Asked anyone to tell you a funny story about what they did on the weekend and you’ll end up sharing a laugh.

Not so when it comes to business. Most business stories told in a business setting are dry and awkward, rambling and confusing, or simply absent from communications.

Many people in business think boring you to death with a PowerPoint presentation in 6pt with 47 bullet points per slide is telling a story. It’s not.

People in business think screaming at the salespeople to hit their budgets is telling a story. It’s not.

They think reading out highlights at the annual general meeting is telling a story. It’s not.

There’s a lot of weird assumptions about storytelling and business. Here’s just three of them.

Assumption #1. There’s no time for storytelling in business.

Wrong answer. Storytelling is how we distribute meaning. Sure there’s no time for bad storytelling. But you’ll never get any complaints about telling a good story. People will happily give their time and attention to a good story. It’s what they crave.

Assumption #2. Storytelling doesn’t have a place in business communications.

Incorrect. A good story can more than pay for itself. Open a presentation with a pointed story. Frame a set of numbers/facts with a relevant story so it makes sense. Turn around an angry/sad/down audience with an uplifting story.

Assumption #3. It’s inappropriate to talk about personal experiences in a business setting.

False. Many business people suck at storytelling because they have cordoned off  topics into appropriate and inappropriate, into professional and unprofessional. They’re more than happy to waffle on about perceived professional topics like numbers, goals, strategies, tools, models, allocation of resources, that psycho-bitch from HR. (Slipped that last one in just to make sure you hadn’t nodded off.)

Many business people see all the human stuff, all the emotional stuff (like that psycho-bitch from HR) as totally unprofessional. This includes admitting your thoughts and emotions behind business topics. Even internal conversations you have with yourself about real business subjects like disappointment, frustration, fear, love, hate, betrayal, loss, ambition, greed, generosity, lies, anxiety, etc.

You know, all the stuff that makes you not a spreadsheet. All the stuff that makes you real.

You might not like talking about emotions and anything that may make you feel vulnerable. But not talking about those feelings doesn’t mean they go away. Doesn’t mean they don’t play a role in the momentum of your business life.

In the context of a story, they can be discussed within a framework to channel those emotions like fuel to drive your business on to success. Intentionally paying attention to the emotions individuals feel about your project, the recent layoff, or the new goals gives you access to influence them in a positive way. Ignoring these topics because you think they’re unprofessional leaves you powerless. (Which is really unprofessional.)

The easiest stories to find are the true stories about you, about topics that come from your own experiences. Your highs, your lows. If you did great, share that story as honestly and humanly as you can. If you screwed up, people love those stories even more.

People are dying to know who you are.

Just tell them your story.

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