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Storytelling: Your Life-Line in a Recession?




Before getting down to this month’s article, let me tell you about my Thanksgiving experience – which does relate some to storytelling.

Did you celebrate the U.S.’s Thanksgiving holiday?

Pam and I did. We drove 12 hours from our home in Oklahoma to Indiana. We were visting Pam’s middle daughter, my step-daughter Casey. Casey is a graduate student in evolutionary biology; this was our first time to see her new home.

I loved seeing how well Casey is doing. She manages her studies, her money, and decorating her home beautifully, without losing her playfulness and sense of joy. She is also a good home-repair student; I taught her how to update her ungrounded electrical outlets. I was delighted to be able to give her some of the tools she needed, to continue the work after I left.

Driving home, Pam and I were singing along with Christmas carols on the radio. Some station in Missouri played the 1940′s novelty song, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”

Suddenly, I could see in my mind my Jewish father’s face as he brought that record home to me one day. It must have been in the mid-1950′s, because I was missing a couple of teeth at the time. My Dad said, “I just had to buy this, because of you.” I tried to explain to him that my missing teeth were on the side, not the front. But I couldn’t mistake his delight in having found a song that, he felt, reflected the experience I was going through.

And now I was enjoying the giving of a well-suited gift to Casey, who I first met in her high school years – long after her permanent teeth had come in. But the delight was the same.

Isn’t it a similar joy to tell a story that fits an audience perfectly?


In hard times, is storytelling just a frill? Or can it be part of a strategy to survive and even thrive?

Cheap and Tasty and Good for You?

When times get really hard, people change their eating habits. They look for food that is

1. cheap

And also

2. nutritious enough

And finally

3. as tasty as possible.

Different people will give greater preference to each of the three. But if you can provide something that combines cheap, nutritious and delicious, you’ll have people knocking on your door in the darkest economic times!

Storytelling Gives You All Three

As Karen Dietz says, storytelling is a core business competency. So it can assist you no matter what field you are in.

In particular, in difficult economic times, storytelling can save money and be economical when compared to alternatives (cheap). It can make you or your business more effective (nutritious). And it can provide the unique flavor that makes you or your business stand out among all the others (tasty).

And this is true whether you are

I. A performing storyteller,
II. An employee, or
III. Are running a business – as a solo entrepreneur, as a for-profit company or even a non-profit organization.

In this first of a series of articles, I’ll talk about how storytelling can be used to improve the quality of what you offer – thus making you more likely to thrive during an economic crunch. In the next two articles, I’ll talk about how storytelling can make you first an economical and, second, a “tasty” choice.

I. For the Professional Storyteller

If you are a professional storyteller, being “nutritious” means being sure that your telling is excellent.

All else being equal, people will always choose higher quality. But in hard times, when their money is scarce, people will be even more picky about quality. Storytelling that might have gotten by during boom times will no longer suffice.

Therefore, if you apply yourself to improving your telling, you will have a better chance of being one who continues to thrive during these times.

To improve your telling, you need three basic things:

First, you need opportunities to tell at different levels: rehearsal buddies who will listen for your sake (not for theirs) as well as practice performance audiences, so you can season your stories before you bring them in front of a paying audience.

Second, you also need information. You need to have a clear idea of what the issues of storytelling are and the options for approaching them in your own distinctive way.

Third, you need skilled helpers. You need helpers to supplement the energy and skills you have available for your business. And from time to time you need help from a coach who is more experienced and can offer you perspective on the places where you are stuck.

II. For the Employee

If you are an employee, the product you need to sell is yourself. In a business that may be shrinking, for example, you want to be so valuable that you will not lose your job. Further, if you find yourself without a job, you want to be so attractive to other employers that you’ll be able to get one easily.

If you’re looking for a job, storytelling is your best friend! First, don’t go into an interview until you’re clear what story you want to tell about yourself. What’s the narrative of your own career? What incidents demonstrate your strengths? Second, what stories do you want to elicit, to learn about your prospective employer? Would you like to know stories about the company’s values, or heroes, or successes or struggles?

Storytelling is also a skill that can make you more qualified. The job descriptions of many (if not most) employees include inter-personal activities, such as communication, leadership, conflict management, customer service, supervision, sales or persuasion.

Storytelling improves your effectiveness in all inter-personal skills. You will be a better employee if you know how to elicit people’s stories, listen to stories, find stories to tell, shape stories, and communicate stories effectively.

Regardless of job description, though, all employees become more valuable when they have interpersonal skills. For example, suppose that two workers have the same technical skills and work at the same rate, yet one of them gets along well with colleagues and is able to communicate the aspirations and the visions of a project and to inspire others. In such a case, you can guess which worker will be fired last and hired first!

You may be thinking, “But I work by myself in a very technical field. What does storytelling have to do with improving my value to my employer?”

As it turns out, even if you are a computer programmer or a financial analyst, you need imagination. Even though the bulk of your work may be writing code to accomplish a given task, say, or analyzing numbers that have been handed to you, the reason someone wants that code or those numbers analyzed is to meet a need.

At some point, the excellent programmer, the excellent analyst, or the excellent technician of any kind needs to take an imaginative leap to understand what needs to be done or how to do it best. And storytelling is the premier tool for developing your imagination quickly, easily and at little cost.

III. For the Business Owner

If you are running a business, either by yourself or as part of an organization, you have certain key tasks. One such task, of course, is sales and marketing, which, in turn, is key to staying afloat in a recession. As it turns out, the stories you tell in your sales and marketing presentations help determine the sales you get!

What about improving the quality of your products and services? You need excellent communication among your staff, near-universal buy-in to the company vision, and persuasive presentations to your suppliers, partners, and even board of directors. As it turns out, storytelling is a key method for improving all of those!

In the end, you are dependent on the satisfaction of those who pay you and your company money. In that sense, you are primarily in the customer service business.

Trying to maintain customer service without excellent storytelling is a little bit like trying to dig a hole with your bare hands: You can do it, but it’s so much easier with the right tool. Storytelling is a way to elicit experiences (successful and unsuccessful) from customers and employees. It’s a way to train employees. It’s a way to remind them of the importance of customer satisfaction and to celebrate their achievements.

This idea of founding your company philosophy in a corporate policy of customer-centered storytelling is used at highly successful companies from Nordstrom’s to Metronics. If you’re not using it, you’re missing a key opportunity for improving the quality of your business.

Steak and Green Vegetables?

Regardless of the kind of work you do, storytelling skills increase the quality of what you offer.

Said another way, storytelling is a fine food for hard times. In fact, it has the top nutritional value of lean meat and fresh green vegetables.

Can storytelling also help with the other two problems of expense and flavor? I’ll return to those qualities later, each in a future article.

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