Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum
Recognise this? Unless you speak Anglo-Saxon or your name is Ellen Fremedon, these words might not be familiar to you. They are in fact the opening lines of Beowulf, arguably one of the greatest stories in the world.
We are all storytellers – whether in corporate or our personal lives. But few – if any – of us are as good as the anonymous author of Beowulf, whose words resonate across centuries and countries. And even listening to it on youtube can bring goose pimples.
Will your corporate stories still resonate 800 years from now? Or appear on some version on youtube in 2815? Unlikely, perhaps.
But there are certainly lessons we can learn about storytelling and how successful companies get it right.
The #11ways research which I conducted with Michael Ambjorn and Dana Poole covers over 100 organizations with over a million employees. And it gives clear insights into not only the power of stories, but also how to power stories to improve your corporate narrative.
A big part of storytelling is to create emotional connections (even goose pimples). The research tells us that 68% of high performing organizations say that they try and make emotional connections with the audience. This compares to 43% of average companies, who, as it happens, are also more likely to talk about themselves or try to pack too many messages in their communications. Poor communicators like to monologue about themselves, great ones are audience-centric in their stories. Indeed, the writer of Beowulf was good at focusing on the story, we don’t even know his or her name. This is what Sam mentioned in a previous blog: “the cocktail party rule” (see https://insightagents.co.uk/how-to-be-a-better-brand-storyteller-the-five-golden-rules/).
But how do you go from the concept of stories to their execution? One approach is to play to typical organizational strengths around process and execution. Stories might appear organically, but if you can ape the high performing companies in the research, so much the better: 69% of them say they have a process for creating stories. This is 2x the figure for average companies. Play to your process or operational strengths and create a process or operation for creating stories.
Beowulf didn’t spring full-formed Athene-like from Zeus’s head. No, the story was developed and evolved over time through a process, practice and patience. Stories take time but a process certainly helps.
What about complexity? Do we really expect companies to develop their own epic poems to equal the sagas of old, and live across the æons? Well maybe not, or perhaps well maybe not for everything. Although if – like me – you sometimes have to wade through annual reports – you might wish for a bit of poetry, or at least a cæsura (as above).
A story which emotionally connects can be simple and short. One of my favourites from an insurance company I did some work with a few years back. I was attending a rehearsal session for the executive team just before a big leadership event. The CFO had the job of telling the corporate story. And being CFO-like he illustrated his points numerically: “We were founded in 1841 and by 1851 we had £100,000 in assets, 1000 customers, then by 1901, we had grown to £1,340,000 assets and 10,067 customers….” As he droned on, not only were we bored but it became apparent even he was too. He petered out. But someone then turned to him and said “Bob, tell them the story of the Titanic.”
Titanic? Oh yes… he continued
“… but the thing that makes me the most proud of this organization, the one fact that I can point to that sums up who we are and what stand for is that our company was the first insurance company to pay out all of its policies to victims of the sinking of the Titanic.”
Suddenly the room went quiet and you could feel a chill go round. Not quite as cold as those April Atlantic waters in 1912, but emotional connection? Mission accomplished.
This simple, short, one-sentence story was far more effective than any “numerical parade” the CFO could have given.
Creating stories, creating emotional connections, creating resonance. These are all keys to making an impact, and getting your message across. These are all ways to access the emotional part of your audience’s brains and get them thinking in a different way.
There is actually no such thing as corporate communication. Organizations don’t communicate: people do. Stories are a way of making those connections, and we know form the research that the best companies do this.
And when it comes to stories, it doesn’t have to be hard, but it helps to be human.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.