Q: Why are businesses interested in having employees focus on storytelling?
A: In our increasingly digital workplace, attributes such as empathy, creativity, listening and inclusion — all uniquely human — are needed now more than ever. There is a compelling need for a mediating function between data and our useful understanding of it. Angela Ahrendts, former senior vice president of retail at Apple, reminds us of this, "The more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more we need to go back to the basic fundamentals of human communication."
Storytelling is the most common way that people pass causal information to one another. Stories provide nuance to the outcomes of our work. Through stories we are taught right vs. wrong, what we should avoid, what is dangerous, whom to trust and the extent of our own potential. Stories have been sharing goals and building community for generations.
While storytelling may be associated with whimsy, it can be as disciplined a management tool as any. Our business culture demands communications that both inform and influence decisions. The narrative of the story can be linked with data to enhance leadership thinking about influencing cooperation and facilitating new initiatives.
Storytelling can help business leaders explore the meaning of information and its effects on organizational strategy and culture. From there, they can more easily build thinking processes or an informational dashboard to influence outcomes. The story itself must have it own rubric. Brevity, humor and a story arc that hooks the listener's attention and maintains it through a call to action are essential. Likewise, a good storyteller must understand the rubric while adding personal authority and confidence.
As business is evolving through digital technologies, the workforce must become insight-driven, multiskilled, specialized and creative. The influx of data-driven analysis must be communicated on a human scale. We can be overwhelmed by spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides and bar charts. It's now incumbent on presenters to link informational formats with a sensible, compelling narrative. That is the power of storytelling.
Jack Militello is a professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.