Storytelling in business: why it can be dangerous

Did you realise that business storytelling can be dangerous for innocent customers? UK based business coach Phil Morton shares some very useful tips on how to avoid being taken in by business stories which, despite being popular sledge hammers in the inbound marketing toolbox, can turn out to be fairy tales…

Business storytelling - why it can be dangerous

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

Most of us will know from our childhood what is coming next. We are about to be told a story, we are about to be entertained, for a period of time. The story may even hold some moral teaching, or life lesson to take away.

As adults we sometimes choose to spend money at the cinema or theatre to have a story played out before us, but even if we don’t, we are surrounded by stories.

They make life more interesting

A simple timetable of events might adequately explain to me what my colleagues got up to at the weekend.

But hearing their stories allows me to appreciate the highs and lows of emotions connected to the activities. Often they are quite comical too.

I know their different personalities and I can imagine how they might react to different things. Their stories allow me to better imagine the reality of what happened to them, and enjoy the humour of the moment.

Adults learn best through experience

We can glean valuable wisdom by understanding our successes and failures. Listening to the stories of others gives us insight to their experience and the first step to gleaning wisdom of ourselves.

Our own attitudes and beliefs can be consciously or unconsciously shaped by the wisdom contained in the stories we hear.

Businesses too have woken up to the ability of storytelling to build relationships with current and potential customers.

A story can turn a faceless economic entity into a character that depicts the values of the organisation

For a purchase to take place the buyer must have sufficient trust in the seller that they will receive the value they anticipated, or at least sufficient trust in the legal structures that will protect them if the deal turns sour.

The challenge for businesses is that we are a sceptical bunch who long ago learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Customers’ natural disposition is not to trust, until we know more.

A good business story goes beyond just articulating where the business came from.

It’s presenting the character of the business to the customer, and taking the customer to a deep level decision; is this a character they trust and want to have a business relationship with?

But how objective are we at evaluating the characters in a story? Take a classic film like the Godfather; the main characters are all criminals, but who’s concerned about that while you’re engrossed in the story?

The power of storytelling is that it bypasses our filters

It appeals to our deeply held inner beliefs, or in some cases it challenges and shapes them at a subconscious level. So what does that mean for me as a customer?

I reject calls from unknown numbers because I don’t want to hear about the latest sales promotion from a company I have no interest in trading with. Or worse still I don’t want to claim compensation for an accident that I was never in.

I delete most emails if I don’t know the sender or the subject line doesn’t instantly grab me. As customers we know what to expect from these messages. We all know the stereotype of the used car salesman and how to fend one off until we really want the car.

As storytelling becomes more and more of an intentional sales technique, how can we avoid being misled?

Here are a few ideas on how we, as customers, can guard against being overly charmed by business storytelling:

  1. Become consciously aware that we are being told a story. Stories bypass our filters because we start following the characters in the story. Business stories never start with ‘are you sitting comfortably’…. but they are still easy to spot, so get ready to analyse the information presented.
  2. History is always told by the winners. Perhaps we should start thinking about what’s the loser’s story? What are the alternative versions of this story told from different perspectives, and do they still give you the same impression of the winner?
  3. Look for the crossroads in the story, the junctions where the story could have had a different outcome. I believe you can make your own luck, but sometimes people do just get lucky with circumstances. What else could have happened, and what does that tell you about the characters in the story.
  4. Challenge the outcomes. The winner’s story always tells of how the main character achieved the results they did, outcomes that mattered to them. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the story, and the struggle, and lose perspective on what was important to you. Be ready to challenge the ending of the story, and ask about the things that are important to you.

Perhaps it would be easier to disengage as soon as we realise we are being told a story, just like we screen calls or emails. But that would be to miss an opportunity.

Stories communicate attitudes, beliefs and values. And knowing how to deconstruct and analyse a story is a great way to quickly audit the values and practices of an organisation – and, to decide if it’s one you want to work with.

(Of course another reason for listening to stories is that stories are fun, and I think we all need a little fun in businesses!)

What experience do you have of the darker side of business storytelling?

Please share!

Why business story telling can be dangerous

Phil Morton

Phil Morton is a business coach and a director of Good Works Ventures Ltd., who work primarily with growing businesses and businesses facing significant change.

Good Works also run the FUEL for enterprise development programme, which includes coaching in storytelling.

In his spare time Phil likes to be out sailing or climbing mountains.