Why business needs raconteurs

I recently attended a presentation on, ugh, I don’t know… something business process… something systems integration… something… boring as bat shit.

The whole time I fought the urge to check my phone, or daydream. I’m sure that the presenter at this event understood the subject matter very well. I’m sure they spent reasonable time and effort building the deck and filling it with detailed process diagrams and complex flowcharts.

I’m also relatively certain that they didn’t practise the presentation with a human being first.

If they had, they may have realised the most important part of their presentation was missing. Without a story, the audience had no compelling reason to engage with the information, and on a neurological level, they had no way to do so.

Take a second to think about the information you retain and share in your professional and personal life. We talk about the things that resonate with us. And the people who provide information in a highly resonant way are called raconteurs.

Why is it that in business, when being memorable and engaging is a necessity for success, do we resort to communicating tomes of information in the least engaging way possible? We point to Elon Musk as an innovator, Nelson Mandela as a change-maker, and Angela Merkel as a visionary. The tool these people all use to great effect, is storytelling. They all engage their audience with something more important than information — they trade in meaning and purpose.

The great news is that we are all born storytellers. We do it in the bar after work with our colleagues. We do it in the park on the weekend with friends. We do it with our children and our parents. But we don’t do it in the boardroom.

I think this is a mistake.

In a recent article for HBR, Ron Ashkenas observes three common traps in intra-organisational communication:

1. Lack of Context (what is this story about?)

2. Lack of Questions and Dialogue (is the story engaging me?)

3. Lack of Connection (why should I care?)

Says Ashkenas: I sat in on an “all-hands” meeting for a department of a major bank. At the session, departmental and corporate leaders made well-prepared, informative presentations — complete with slides, graphs, and videos. After 90 minutes of presentations, the departmental manager asked if there were any questions and — when none of the 150 people raised their hands — adjourned the meeting. A week later, when people were asked to give feedback about the meeting, most recalled that it was “useful” but very few could remember any specific takeaways. Without questions, your audience has no opportunity to digest the content through discussion, and communications are hard to absorb.

Part of my current role is to help our clients use storytelling to become more effective leaders. I often hear resistance to this because it’s ‘too fluffy’ and ‘not a real business tool’. My response to this is usually to ask why they believe this to be true. The response is either a story about how they feel about storytelling or, more alarmingly, an inability to articulate a clear reason for their belief.

You see the irony here, yes?

We are all hardwired from birth, to lean in and listen to stories. To engage with them, because they have meaning. Presentations engage the anterior and posterior speech areas of the brain (Broca & Wernicke respectively), and are good at imparting information. But stories light up the whole brain and because they convey information, and meaning they are an infinitely more effective way to impel people to action, recruit them to a common goal, or have them ingest, retain, and retell the things we need them to. They are also the singularly most effective way to create change that people will believe in, and work towards. For everything from psychological safety, to change management, innovation to org restructuring, storytelling is the key.

The best stories make the best leaders. We are all storytellers — it’s how we connect as humans. We need to start filling our boardrooms and offices with more stories.

I think Jonathan Gottschall put it well when he said:
“Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…”