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Tapping into the power of storytelling to create happier workplaces

In a world full of noise, a growing number of professionals are using storytelling to convey complex information, connect and collaborate

In business storytelling, the narrator applies learnings from personal experience, history or news to business scenarios. (Unsplash/Jason Goodman)

By Reem Khokhar

LAST PUBLISHED 22.04.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

Ayesha Fernandez loves to tell stories. Like the tale of the tortoise and the hare—not the familiar version, but what happens next. The hare, she often narrates, realises that he needs to work harder to win. She also narrates the story of the teacher who fills a jar with stones, asking students if the container is full. When they reply with a yes, she fills it with gravel, which takes up the space between the stones. The students again reply that the jar is full. She repeats the process with sand and the students give her the same answer. She finally fills it with water, proving them wrong yet again. 

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SIMILAR STORIES

These may sound like tales that Fernandez, 40, tells her young daughter, but her audience is actually her colleagues, clients, team members and senior leaders at her workplace. 

Fernandez finds stories effective in communicating varied information at work, whether data, technical details, processes, or abstract ideas. The hare and the tortoise tale illustrates that it’s never too late to change and get back to the top. The teacher story, on the other hand, shows there’s always room for improvement. “It helps the listener to connect and brings emotion to what would otherwise have just been a list of facts and figures. People’s attention is tuned to focusing on a story," says the Bengaluru-based sales director at American software company Salesforce. 

Fernandez is among a growing number of professionals who are using storytelling in the workplace to convey information, make connections, entertain and make messages stick. 

Using stories to communicate in the office is not a new concept. For years, leaders have used them to build a more collaborative workspace. Storytelling has become a more important and integral part of the office now, because they help employees break away from the constant noise they are surrounded with, whether it’s in the form of leadership gurus giving gyaan on Twitter or forwarded WhatsApp memes explaining why it’s a “good idea" to take leave from work immediately after a confrontation with the manager.  Effective in-person storytelling helps bring the message home. The bonus points are that stories bring some heart to boring data, motivating and inspiring listeners and developing trust among people.  

Studies, too, have shown that it is easier to remember random lists of words when embedded in a story. Author Paul Smith highlights storytelling’s effectiveness for varied learners in his book, Leader As Storyteller: 10 Reasons It Makes A Better Business Connection. The vocal aspect appeals to auditory learners, who prefer discussions and lectures; mental pictures help visual learners; while the emotional connection and feelings evoked stay with kinesthetic learners who imbibe learning through feeling and doing, Smith writes. 

People may be technically proficient, but there is also a need for them to be good communicators. “Whether in finance, marketing, or HR, many professionals need this skill. How do you persuade and influence people and push a call to action? You do it through stories," says Debolina Dutta, organizational behaviour and human resource professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bengaluru, who conducts a post graduate and executive program on storytelling for business. 

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But what distinguishes storytelling for business? Indranil Chakraborty, author of Stories At Work and founder of communications consultancy, StoryWorks, which helps business professionals become compelling communicators through storytelling, mentions three key distinctions in business storytelling. Stories in business are used to make point; they help wrap facts in context and deliver them with emotion; and brevity is key.  

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New learnings
While Fernandez has always used stories in her presentations and professional interactions, she honed her storytelling skills in expert-led workshops organized by her company since 2018. For instance, she learnt to build a story bank of anecdotes, experiences and narratives that she could use in different business scenarios. “All these can be used to interpret different situations and the learnings can be applied in varied ways. I draw on this bank, whether making a speech or explaining complex software to a client," she says, believing this approach helps her connect better with people and makes learning more engaging. 

And interest has grown in developing this skill. Chakraborty recalls knocking on doors in 2013 to conduct storytelling workshops and trainings. But most organizations felt that storytelling was too flippant for serious business scenarios. Ten years later, this attitude has changed, says Chakraborty. He’s now working with several organizations on varied long-term programmes, including ones tailored for senior leaders, professionals who use data extensively in presentations, and senior sales professionals. 

What stories mean 
“You need to engage people, even if communicating highly technical information, and present it in an impactful way," says Rajesh Vorkady, founder and chief executive of Bengaluru-based marketing communications company, Veeville. Storytelling comes naturally to him, he says, having used personal anecdotes and stories throughout his career with colleagues and clients. For instance, while working on a client brief on compliance communication, he draws on personal experiences to illustrate the messaging or creates a story with characters and weaves in the details. 

Stories can also foster connection. For instance, leaders sharing personal challenges and vulnerabilities help employees relate better to them. When a colleague was stressed about his daughter experiencing depression after a personal loss, Anant Vijay Mandelia spoke to him about his experience in seeking help from a counsellor. “By doing this, I helped remove the taboo about seeking professional expertise for mental health. His daughter now sees a counsellor, which has helped her, and improved my colleague’s morale," says the Delhi-based managing partner of organic produce provider, Satsumi Farms. 

When another team member was going through a rough patch, Mandelia comforted him to not lose hope by recounting an accident he was in a few years ago, which prevented him from working for a few months and challenged his business. But not everyone is a natural storyteller, particularly for business. “People tend to provide too much detail and be long winded, which is painful for the audience," says Dutta. “I get people to practice telling succinct stories and get their message across." 

There is no dearth of tales that can be used for business storytelling, as long as the message is clear and relevant for the scenario. This is the only course where plagiarism is encouraged," says Dutta. “We encourage people to collect and use others’ narratives to build a ready repository of stories to lean on." Once people learn the skill and technique, she adds, they can apply the learnings from personal anecdotes, mythology, history, or current affairs to different business scenarios. 

It is evident that there are myriad ways in which storytelling can be effective in the workplace, but it is still early days in India, Chakraborty says, observing interest primarily from multinationals. Organizations may acknowledge the importance of storytelling, but it can take significant investment to get professional expertise in honing this skill in their employees. “I think it hasn’t reached that point as yet where everyone feels it is an important enough skill worth the investment," says Chakraborty. 

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.

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