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Businesses Must Embrace Storytelling


9 March 2016 at 8:34 am
Ellie Cooper
The power of storytelling should be used to leverage the support of stakeholders for strategic activities such as corporate volunteering, according to a business communication expert.

Ellie Cooper | 9 March 2016 at 8:34 am


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Businesses Must Embrace Storytelling
9 March 2016 at 8:34 am

The power of storytelling should be used to leverage the support of stakeholders for strategic activities such as corporate volunteering, according to a business communication expert.

Shawn Callahan shared his tips for business storytelling at Volunteering Victoria’s quarterly corporate volunteering seminar held this month.

“We are inspired to take action based on emotion, rather than rational and reason-based arguments, and stories allow you to engage people at that emotional level,” Callahan said.

“They require stakeholders internally to say, ‘yep we think this is a good idea, yep we should keep funding this.’

“And the big difference there is when the people who are doing that work can actually tell stories to the stakeholders of where corporate volunteering has made a difference made a difference to their employees, has made a difference to their customers, and also maybe even made a difference to their reputation as a company.”  

Callahan said that, although the practice has gained momentum in the 12 years he has been in the industry, many businesses are still not engaging in storytelling.

However, he said big corporates have invested heavily in the practice, and he has worked with NAB, Shell, KPMG and Mars.

“Most corporates don’t tell stories, especially oral stories. They’ve got into a habit of saying, ‘look, there are three key reasons why we should invest in corporate volunteering,’” he said.

“And unfortunately none of that engages emotion, it just engages that left brain rational, logical thinking, which needs to be engaged, but it can’t be the only thing.

“You have to add the emotional side, you have to help them feel it in some way, make them feel proud, make them feel excited, make them feel that this is something they want to be part of.”  

One of the oral “story patterns” Callahan teaches is called the “clarity pattern”, which explains why something should happen and why the company should invest in it.

“This pattern’s a very simple pattern, and that is,so in the past it was like this, and then something happens, and as a result of that, that’s why we should do corporate volunteering, and this is what it would look like, so in the future it can look like this’ and it’s just a very basic narrative structure,” he said.

“That’s the broad story, and then you have to fill it out with your own personal anecdotes, so you have to show small examples of where corporate volunteering has made a difference.

“Imagine you’re trying to get a stakeholder on board around corporate volunteering, you might start off by saying, ‘let me just put this into context; we operated in a certain way over the last hundred years and we’re able to attract and retain our customers because of our reputation of being a solid and safe place to invest your money; well in the last five years a whole bunch of things have changed, the internet has changed the way people interact with our business, people and generations have changed; they’re expecting more around what we deliver and how we operate. The millennials want more from what we do.

“And to reinforce that point about millennials, you could say, ‘it was only last week I was chatting to one of our volunteers…’ and then you tell a little story about what she had done that really impacted her or changed the way in which she saw the company.

“Then you continue the clarity story and you say, ‘that’s why corporate volunteering is so important and we need these resources, and the future we see for this’, and then you’ve got to help them imagine a future.”

Another story story pattern that he teaches is how to counter negative stories that are preventing the business from moving forward.

“If one of your stakeholders says, ‘we tried something like this five years ago and it was an absolute disaster, we didn’t get any return on it’ they’ve got a strong story in their head,” he said.

“One of the principles that we work on is that you can’t beat a story with facts, you can only beat a story with a better story, and the research really backs this up.

“When you come across someone like that you have to say, ‘I understand you have that feeling that we’ve tried this before’ recognise their ‘anti-story’ and then say, ‘some things have changed’ and tell that clarity story.”  

Callahan will share more storytelling tips in Pro Bono Australia’s Executive Webinar on 20 April. His book, Putting Stories to Work, will also be released this month.


Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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