The Leader as Story Teller
If you were asked to develop a culture of customer service at your company – a culture where employees at all levels were encouraged to take initiative, serve customers with a smile, and take actions that helped build the company’s bottom line, what would you do? You might develop an employee handbook outlining company policies. You might share statistics on how important customer service is to the company’s success. You might conduct training programs and role plays to help employees understand how to interact with customers most effectively.
However, if you really want to develop a service culture and change employee behavior, perhaps the most important thing you could do is to tell stories. What do you think communicates customer service most effectively – a company mission statement and customer service “guidelines” or a story of an employee who personally delivered a pair of replacement shoes to a customer who’s original purchase was left out in the rain by the delivery company? How about the story of the employee who cheerfully refunded the price of two returned snow tires even though the store doesn’t sell tires? (These are two of the many stories highlighting the Nordstrom department store’s exceptional service to the customer).
Story telling is a powerful communications tool and one that needs to be in your leadership arsenal. Effective story telling can be as important as financial acumen, decisive decision making and innovative thinking when it comes to creating an organizational culture, communicating a vision and executing a strategy.
What makes stories so powerful?
- Stories are remembered. As human beings, we remember stories much better than we recall facts and figures. Stories have plots. They give us context and color. They relate to our everyday lives and experiences. They connect with our memories on multiple levels. As a result we can usually recall a story much more readily than the hard facts. I don’t know many details about Federal Express, but I’ll never forget the story that the idea was first proposed in a college term paper (and received a “C” grade).
- Stories are personal and evoke emotion and connection. Stories allow us to see ourselves in a situation and either empathize with or disagree with the protagonists. In either case we begin to internalize the lesson of the story.
- Stories are easily shared. Because they are easily remembered, and because everyone likes stories, they are easy to communicate. Stories will travel throughout your organization infinitely faster than your latest annual report. Given the breadth of today’s social media, they’ll also travel across your markets and customers.
- Stories sell. Stories are key sales tool whether you are selling your vision to your employees or trying to land a multi-million dollar order from a new customer. Describing the benefits of your product or service through a story is extremely powerful. Stories help your customers make an emotional connection to your company and really “see” the benefits of your product. Most large NGOs who rely on donations for their funding know this well. Their fund raising efforts typically include a selection of stories about how your donations have helped meet the needs of a specific child/family/animal/people group. These stories are always much more powerful than simply talking about the benefits in the abstract.
- Stories humanize. Too often large companies (and their leaders) can appear to be estranged from their customers and employees. Stories can help provide a more humane and relatable face to the organization, helping to build trust and connection with both markets and employees. If the stories are about the company’s leaders, so much the better.
So, if you want to communicate more effectively with your team, your organization or your customers, think about how to improve your story telling. Collect stories and examples as they happen. Practice telling them to yourself. Create a collection of anecdotes that highlight key features of your product or focus on important values of your company. Tell them regularly. Of course, you’ll want to base your decisions on facts and analysis, but you’ll be more effective if you communicate those decisions in a story.
Effective leadership is often the result of effective story telling. Stories communicate emotion, are easily shared and are remembered more readily than facts and figures. Story telling is a critical component to effective organizational communication and should be an important part of your leadership toolbox.