Why Story? Why Now?

Excerpt from “Powered by Storytelling: Excavate, Craft, and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication” by Murray Nossel (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018). Copyright 2018 by Murray Nossel.

Every company that approaches my company, Narativ, has a different response to “Why story? Why now?” Storytelling and stories are two sides of the most important competency in business communication. Storytelling puts all of us in the position to know our work more deeply and intimately through a story. Meanwhile, stories themselves work all kinds of magic on communication, from delivering emotional relevance to bringing data to life to transferring knowledge in an engaging and memorable way. Throughout this book, you’ll read about how companies have successfully applied the Narativ method to achieve their business communication goals. Here are some examples:

  • A social media company’s marketing teams were promoting its business globally, but within the company, the marketing teams were not always seen as being as essential as the engineers. As a result, they wanted to communicate their stake in the business and show their value in an impactful way. That was their answer to “Why story? Why now?” Then came a second answer: “We need to be better listeners.” We designed training that was entirely about identifying and releasing obstacles to listening so everyone in the entire department could be better listeners within their various teams and to their business partners, which paved the way for powerful stories to emerge.
  • A tech company was pivoting, which required reorganization and rethinking, and this made waves in its management culture. We were asked to create a listening and storytelling environment in which to identify and release obstacles that were preventing clear and clean communication, and then develop a new, forward-thinking story to help them move ahead.
  • A media and entertainment giant was bringing together 140 employees from 47 emerging market countries for a corporate retreat. The manager wanted an event that would “break down boundaries among people.” The manager told us the event had to be “really good because some participants were from countries whose governments hated one another.” Their “Why story? Why now?” revealed an intense need for collaboration and connection in order to tackle the enormity of their assignment.
  • A national medical insurance company was trying to change the perception that the company was a large behemoth out of touch with its customers’ real needs. For this company’s leaders, the questions, “Why story? Why now?” revealed it was in fact a customer-centric company that wasn’t putting a spotlight on how its customer service department responded to real client needs. Over the years, the company had invested significantly in training to go beyond the call of duty and exceed expectations. The question made us turn to the managers and employees in the call centers that addressed clients directly. This led to excavating stories of actual customer experiences that brought to life how the company was making a difference in the lives of its customers, challenging the narrative that had been in the media until then.
  • A multinational pharmaceutical firm’s sales and research teams frequently made dry, fact-filled presentations that were so data heavy it was hard to read what was on each slide of the decks. Some decks were 80 slides long! Their “Why story? Why now?” was at first related to standard presentation concerns: They wanted to tell stories that engaged, and they adapted presentation decks to those personal stories. And then, as often happens in the process of answering these questions, a second reason arose, even more powerful than the first. The research and sales teams had different agendas and purposes, yet they had to find a common language so the whole enterprise could move forward. “What stories can we tell that would help us be better collaborators and, therefore, create better presentations?” they asked.
  • The chief business officer of an iconic publishing brand sought to craft a story to rouse his team and form stronger bonds. I worked closely with him to create his story, and in Chapter 6 you can observe the real-world process of excavating, crafting, and preparing for presentation in minute detail.
  • A luxury brand’s legal team often was seen as creating headaches for the multitude of businesses the company held, and the team members needed to position the team as a business partner to the rest of the company. The team’s answer to “Why story? Why now?” was to change that perception by telling powerful stories that would touch people’s hearts and get past preconceptions.

There are common themes and purposes that emerge from asking the questions, “Why story? Why now?” Here are some of them. Feel free to add your own:

  • Demonstrate leadership
  • Explain a raison d’être and purpose
  • Increase collaboration or teamwork
  • Generate empathy
  • Inspire change
  • Resolve conflict
  • Humanize or dimensionalize an issue or audience
  • Share learning or training
  • Celebrate and build culture

Now take a moment to reflect on a project or initiative at work, some relational issues within a team, or a newly identified target audience. Why would you use story to support that work? And what about this moment in time requires the story to be told? Explore the center and edges of those questions. You will gain greater insight the deeper you probe.

As we move forward from this starting point, excavation evolves into a process of exploration and discovery. Roll up your sleeves because stories require some digging. They are not ready-made, a product you pull off the shelf. In fact, viewing them that way diminishes their return.

A good example is formulaic training material or a clichéd inspirational phrase. They lack the direction and urgency of “Why story? Why now?” and the vitality of a good story. Work needs to be done to get to the heart of the matter. There’ve been no surprises yet. We haven’t pushed through any boundaries. And this is precisely why we must suspend judgment for a period of time: so we don’t cut short the creative process of excavation and miss out on stories that lie just below the surface. The obstacles that stand in the way turn out to be part of the creative process itself.

Excerpt from “Powered by Storytelling: Excavate, Craft, and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication” by Murray Nossel (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018). Copyright 2018 by Murray Nossel, Ph.D.

Murray Nossel, Ph.D., is the founder and director of Narativ. He sees every situation and every interaction as an opportunity for listening and storytelling, and he has taught storytelling for 25 years in more than 50 countries to more than 10,000 people. He believes something personal and expressive lies deep within each of us—and that we all have a story to tell. Dr. Nossel is on the teaching faculty of the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. The Narativ methodology has been taught at London Business School, Haas School of Business UC Berkeley, City University of New York, The New School, Baruch College, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and the University of Maryland. Dr. Nossel has applied his listening and storytelling methodology in the theater and documentary filmmaking. Two Men Talking, a performance of his listening and storytelling method developed with Dr. Paul Browde, has been performed in the West End of London and Off-Broadway in New York. His film, Why Can’t We Be a Family Again? about a recovering drug addict, was nominated for a 2003 Academy Award. Dr. Nossel currently is producing and directing Sala, a documentary film about a Holocaust survivor who resolutely chose not to tell her story until advanced age prompted her to speak. Dr. Nossel is the founder and director of the World Mother Storytelling Project, a listening and storytelling movement that seeks to capture the stories of mothers around the world.