The Truth about Corporate Storytelling
Updated: May 24
If I had a penny for every time a businessman or woman asked me why corporate stories need emotion, I'd probably be fishing on my private yacht in the Bahama's right now. Every storytelling lecture I give to the business world, I find myself fighting against the pervasive myth that somehow storytelling for businesses is different than other narrative practices. As if the very laws of biology on Earth - that determine that our species is governed by emotions - somehow magically vanish when touched by the corporate world. So in this blog, we'll strip away that myth and uncover the truth about corporate storytelling once and for all. And make a good buck while doing it.
The myth about corporate storytelling
I'm going to come - all business like - right to the point: if you want to make money with your corporate story, add emotion. Why? Because pull is always more profitable than push. Human beings are emotional animals. We are drawn to feelings. It's our nature. Corporate storytelling is in its core no different than the narratives of films, literature or other forms of art, who are in fact the very lifeblood that make our economies thrive.
Just as those other types of storytelling, human beings will only respond to a story if they find some challenge or struggle they can relate too. If there is no friction in a story - whatever story - the mind simply doesn't really register it. It's more biology than logic: when there is no emotional connection made, there are literally no new pathways created in the brain. In short, your corporate story will already be forgotten the moment it was seen, if it doesn't present some kind of friction or challenge.
So, why do so many people still think that corporate storytelling should be all factual and functional? That's because it's new. Corporate storytelling and it's slightly older sister called 'advertising' are among the younger new members of the storytelling family. The older sibling include cave paintings, sculptures, pottery drawings, legends, myths, religious stories, epics, literature, theater, music, painting...
We've created countless forms of communicating to convey emotions. Corporate storytelling simply is one of the latest of the bunch. And every time we create a new form of storytelling, in the first period of its existence we use it to show 'perfect worlds' or idealistic portrayals. Just think back at early social media posts, also a new form of communication. Everyone always looked perfect! Now, only a few years later, these posts have evolved into something deeper and include our challenges, doubts, frictions and everything else that makes storytelling memorable. And I mean memorable in the literal sense, as in 'stored to memory'.
Remembering a corporate story
The human brain only remembers information that is useful for either its survival, or for the survival of future offspring. And our key instrument to survival is emotion. Feelings are the indicators of the body that spur us into action or inaction - fight, flight or freeze - to increase our chances of survival. Fear moves you towards a flight response. Anger into a fight response. But also a little more complicated feelings such as joy, love and happiness are used as a survival tool. They help in achieving procreation or social bonds needed to thrive.
If information does not have an emotional component, it will be stored away, forgotten over time, and broken down to make way for new synapses and pathways in our minds. The brain is programmed to recognize those signals that it understands: life's challenges. The less hardship and friction, the less interesting it is for the mind to store for future use, simply because it does not add to its ultimate goal of surviving and thriving.
Money is surrounded by the same set of emotions. In our modern-day reality, we need money to buy things for survival at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, like food and clothing or a roof over our heads. A little bit more in the middle of that pyramid, money becomes an indicator that shows us who are the better survivors and who might end up thriving in our society.
Of course, money isn't the only survival instrument we have. It is far more complicated. Empathy for example is another one. If we are simply nice to each other, we can help each other thrive too, by sharing stuff. The higher up we go on Maslow's pyramid of needs, the less money we need. Simply because we can now 'afford' to help each other thrive. We are social animals after all. Still, money is seen as one of our primary survival tools. And by extension, so is the world that makes it: business.
The true meaning of value
In corporate surroundings we prefer to talk about 'value' instead of 'money', but we mean the same thing by it. The thing about 'value' or 'money' is that we often convey it as an end result. We see it in our bank accounts as a few numbers here and there. Or on an excel sheet in sales numbers. Nothing more. There is no music swelling in the background, no painting visible on the login screen. In other words, there are no emotions being conveyed. We've created this air of functionality around money and value and sales, and stripped of feelings.
But that does not mean money itself is without emotion. On the contrary. It's highly emotional because we need it to survive and thrive. We just don't convey it that way. We choose to keep it simple and factual. Just think of the stock market. Even during the pandemic in 2020 Wall Street flew through the roof. Functionally, or rationally, that shouldn't have happened; the economy went so sour, millions of people started lining up for food stamps. If money were just rational, and without emotion, the stock market should've tanked big time. But it didn't. This means that perceived value is completely and utterly governed by emotion.
Yet, the higher you climb in the corporate world, the less emotion you will see. Why is that? It's because as senders of a corporate message, we are already aware of the value of our business. We do not feel a pressing need to give out any other information, let alone emotions, on something that is factually very clear to us. We feel as if it is a waste of already very precious time in our busy schedules.
So, most of us end up thinking that conveying the function or rational value is all we need. In essence, we're projecting. We are acting as if the receiver of our message is psychic and will understand our meaning, regardless if we make an emotional connection or not. And we end up asking that question - during a lecture by yours truly for instance - that sounds like this:
"Why on Earth would we need emotion in corporate storytelling?"
Why emotions are key to corporate stories
Whenever this question is posed, I ask my participants to imagine they have a crucial business proposal to present to a potential client. The proposal is good, factual, functional. But now we face a few choices. Do we give the proposal on a crumpled piece of paper, or do we let someone design it? Do we make an appealing presentation maybe? Or even a short animation? And where do we present it? Do you make that crucial appointment in some dodgy roadside restaurant with bad coffee? Or do you take your prospect to a nice place? And most importantly... which place do you think will increase your chances of getting the business? And than I reverse the roles: what if you would get a shoddy piece of paper, in a dodgy roadside restaurant with bad coffee... would you even be interested in hearing the proposal in the first place?
See? Emotion matters. Unanimously, everyone always agrees that it's better to present it in a appealing way, or at an appealing place. We acknowledge that emotion may not be super important for the sender of the message, but that it is pivotal for the receiver of the message. For us social animals, without emotion there is no connection. And without connection, our minds will not remember the proposal.
How should Corporate Storytelling be done?
So, how should it be done then? The answer is that corporate storytelling works best if it is done in much the same way as all other forms of storytelling. The corporate story should involve recognizable challenges and frictions for the receiver of the message. It should be about the journey more than the destination. And it must be presented in an emotionally appealing manner.
In other words, we add all of these emotions. But don't worry, these emotions don't have to go overboard. We're not asking McKinsey to defeat the evil armies of Sauron here. This isn't a Marvel Avengers story that pits Microsoft against Dr. Doom. In other words, we don't need classic enemies... what we need are recognizable challenges. Let's use an example.
A Corporate Storytelling approach
A key topic in business today is sustainability. This subject is full of frictions, fears and anxieties surrounding the current climate crisis we are in, as well as filled with all kinds of doubts on how to proceed in ways that maintain energy consumption and job security. In short, for corporate storytelling purposes the subject of sustainability is pretty much perfect: we have a common obstacle to overcome, shared goals and recognizable survival instruments. Bucket loads of challenges.
Now, let's compare this to the crucial business proposal we talked about earlier. First, we create a setup that is relevant to our receiver. A nice restaurant. An appealing design. Some inspirational content. Your corporate brand isn't even mentioned at this stage. Simply because it's irrelevant. In many ways, it's damaging if you push your corporate story at this moment, because it will feel as if you're trying to sell something, instead of creating value relevant to the other party. It'll feel like push.
So, how to create pull then? Think of it as walking into that really nice coffee place as the receiver of the proposal. The place itself is irrelevant to the sender maybe... but that place is very relevant to the receiver of that story. The receiver is given a nice experience. Without any proposal visible, an emotional connection is already made.
Then you as the sender of the message, can begin to talk about the challenges of sustainability. Since sustainable practices are relevant to the vast majority of people on the planet (it is about survival after all), you'll be touching on a point that just about every business contact will recognize and acknowledge: the more sustainable a business, the better it is for morale and the more profit can be made. But - and this is the crucial part - all of these people also know just how challenging it can be.
It can be very, very hard to become fully sustainable. Everybody knows that. In other words: you've found the frictional message your story needs. So, at this stage of your corporate communications, all you'll have to do is admit to the receiver of your message just how incredibly tough sustainability really is.
The tougher the story, the better the bottom line
Making a transition towards completely renewable energy will take time, effort, innovation and a stubbornness to succeed. Checking if all that apparel is really made without child labor is an immense undertaking. Not to mention making all our foods and drinks sugar free. And getting that cacao to come from 100% slave-free farmers involves years of planning and convincing thousands of stakeholders worldwide.
You're catching my drift: reaching sustainability is hard as nails. The paradox here is: telling and showing how hard it really is, actually becomes they key to a successful corporate story. It will create an even greater emotional connection because people recognize how tough it is, as they experience it themselves too. Let's elaborate on that cacao example to bring home our point.
The chocolate brand Tony Chocolonely has been conveying the same corporate message since day one: we are trying to make cacao trade slave-free. It's not conveying a 'perfect world' scenario. It is not saying it is slave free. No, it says it is trying, it is fighting, it is confronting the immense challenge. Just like the main characters in a great book or film, they are fighting adversity. And just like in such a story, it's mostly about the road itself, and not the end goal.
That corporate story alone propelled sales into sky high numbers. They didn't need advertising nor marketing. They just had one corporate story that said they would give it their best shot. That's all any human being can ever do. So, this corporate message was recognizable, and went word-of-mouth. In other words, and even though your corporate instinct may tell you otherwise, it is far superior to talk honestly about the challenges you are facing, because this will create that empathetic bond with the receiver of the message that you'll need to sell your 'proposal' to them.
The last step is then to connect it all to your brand. Only after you've created the bond, comes the moment to finally introduce function and say 'this and this and that is what our people, products and services are functionally doing to overcome the challenges'.
It's the same as in a good novel: the message of the story is only received if the emotional bond with the characters has already been made with the watcher, the reader or otherwise receiver of the message. Stakeholders of your business are no different, even if they walk around in a suit looking like the corporate numbers guy or gal their function tells them to be. They have emotions too. They are human beings. And watch stories to learn just like everybody else. Zero difference. So why not approach corporate storytelling in exactly the same way?
Gaining an edge in corporate storytelling
Every human being is fragile and experiences challenges in daily life. Overcoming those challenges makes you a better survivor. So the mind is always searching for clues on how to perform better. Stories are the 'equipment for living' (to quote Kenneth Burke) that give us that information. So should your corporate story be. It should be the inspirational instrument that adds value to its receivers. And, if you play it right, add value to your pocket book too.
The order of every good corporate story should thus be: create the setting first, present the shared challenge next, and only when this is accepted, bring forth your corporate story (your 'proposal') and what you do to overcome the challenges and obstacles we face.
And how to make that buck I started about in the beginning? Well, at some point in the future, most corporate stories will have evolved in those deeper narratives that adhere to the same principles of storytelling in all its other shapes and sizes. Until that moment however, most corporations will just do it wrong. They will keep showing up in those proverbial shoddy roadside restaurants with crinkled proposals. Even the biggest companies in the world have 'sender-centric' thinking. It's a dogma, a paradigm that will shift at some time.
But until that time you'll have an edge if you go the emotional route. You'll be better at making that connection with customers and stakeholders alike. In other words, the more emotion your corporate story has, the more money you will make right now. Because in the end, pull is always better to your bottom line than push.
Love, as always.
And plant trees people. Plant trees.