Most managers are experts at crafting PowerPoint presentations, or producing reams of data analysis in meetings. But we also know that more than half the people in a conference room are daydreaming, doodling, texting or sleeping most of the time, because they get bored quickly with all this serious stuff. There is one powerful method of breaking through such boredom. Tell an exciting story. Now, watch your colleagues come alive with curiosity or interest. This is a universal human truth.
Unfortunately, business schools generally do not offer courses on corporate storytelling, while they offer plenty of programmes on analysis and decision making. In fact, telling stories in offices is regarded somewhat negatively, because stories are seen as fictional untruths, far removed from the facts that managers need to understand and assess. But this is an entirely incorrect perception. Stories play a very important role at workplaces and, as you will read here, there are at least seven different forms of corporate storytelling. Each form is an art, and each serves a different objective. This column takes great pleasure in bringing you this story.
Stories about your consumers can powerfully bring home the points you are trying to make to the people in your team. For instance, if you are a quality executive or marketing manager handling an important brand of detergent, you can put up several graphs that display the number of consumer complaints. Or you can tell stories about five such consumers, how they threw out the detergent with the bath water because it wasn’t cleaning well enough, or how their clothes let them down at an important wedding, and their reactions once that happened. You must muster up courage and use a few verbatim quotes from consumers, the angrier the better (“Was that detergent or dishwater? I felt like throwing the bucketful on the company’s head.” Or even “I am suing the company for a million dollars, because the detergent left a huge stain on my irreplaceable wedding dress”). Then watch how quickly everyone squirms and responds.
Every now and then, meetings get very intense, and people lose their cool. In the sweltering heat of summer, this happens even more often. Such unnecessary tension is very bad for general health and wellness. So, before the headaches set in, the best way to defuse such unnecessary tension in a conference room is by narrating a funny story. The story need have no relevance to the subject being discussed, because participants are so stressed out by then that they are waiting for the smallest opening to smile. I know a colleague of mine who has told many such humorous stories, but all of them were about donkeys—don’t ask me why. And each time he told a funny donkey story, all of us promptly laughed. Maybe he made asses of us, but when the meetings resumed after the storytelling, tempers had calmed down, and good decisions were made.
Tall stories are always important to highlight corporate machismo, the efforts to which you went to get things done or achieve targets. Exaggeration is the name of the game here. You can tell stories about how you got the better of the competitor’s salesman in a drinking bout that lasted many hours and tens of bottles, and thus extracted valuable information from him when the poor man was totally intoxicated. By the way, such a story also emphasizes your masculine capacity to carry liquor. If you have crossed the Sahara desert on foot to sign an important business deal for supply of hot food to cannibal tribes, that’s a good story too. Your imagination is your only constraint in such matters.
Tales of woe
There are occasions when you must be fully prepared to enter office with tales of woe. These are days when you are yet to complete an assigned piece of work, and the deadline has sadly passed—all because wild weekend partying took its toll. So you must produce a very old maternal grandfather whose terrible but sudden illness has wrought emotional havoc on you. If you have tears, prepare to shed them at this point. Usually, stories about near-death experiences, blazing kitchen fires, children swallowing mercury, etc. (you get the general drift…), make for excellent tales of woe. If your boss is a married man, you can always narrate stories around your wife’s unreasonable demands. He is likely to fully empathize.
‘Picture of Data (POD)’ stories
Sometimes, you don’t have the required data, results or figures to present. So do you throw up your hands, or fret that your boss is likely to fire you in public for being unprepared? No, absolutely not. You simply tell a story that presents a positive visual picture of the data. If you don’t know your sales figures for a newly launched product, you can speak about how sales were coming in so fast and strong that the computer couldn’t handle the deluge, and hung up (which is why you don’t have the data in the first place); or you could narrate how people are queuing up like crazy in distant towns to buy the product. It is not easy to invent such interesting stories, so you must keep a readily accessible inventory in place. Narrate the story, sit back and watch the glow on everyone’s face.
‘Boss is Great (BIG)’ stories
These stories celebrate the CEO (chief executive officer) or boss, his or her greatness or prowess at work. Their single-minded objective is to stoke the boss’ latent megalomania and make him or her feel superhuman, which will enable the narrator to score big brownie points. Such stories recall in vivid semi-fictional detail how the boss achieved impossible or great things—such as fabulous profits, or new customers, or other inspiring breakthroughs—through his or her sheer genius. Hopefully, such stories will also put the boss in a reasonably elevated mood for the rest of the day. BIG stories have to be told unashamedly, and with a straight face.
Everyone wants to hear good gossipy stories at the water cooler or the canteen. Gossip is the lifeblood of any happy, vibrant organization. So if you aspire to popularity in your office, you must actively generate and disseminate juicy gossip. The essential art of these stories is that they should be simple, spicy and scandalous. Location is never a constraint for such storytelling. With a mobile smartphone in your hand, you can happily transmit these stories through text or email from your meeting room, then look up and smile.
Harish Bhat is managing director and CEO of Tata Global Beverages Ltd. He is an aspiring corporate storyteller himself. In line with this aspiration, he has recently authored a book, Tata Log, which tells eight riveting stories from the contemporary history of the Tata group.