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How do you use storytelling techniques to build a new business?

Written By

Alan Guinn

CEO of The Guinn Consultancy Group, Inc.

Briefly Speaking

The key to finding success in storytelling is that you must be willing to share yourself with others. Learning to do this may be very difficult. Learn four storytelling techniques to accomplish this feat and build your new business.
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Across all of history, storytelling techniques have been used to move information and facts from one generation to the next.  Every surviving civilization has learned that information must be preserved and knowledge must be transferred in order for the civilization to prosper.  

Perhaps nothing speaks so strongly to this as the fact that in order to understand our history, we choose to look back to acts and actions of our leaders, and use those actions as a basis for our many of our decisions and much of our direction.   Our legal theory, based on English Common Law, is derived from decisions (some would call them stories) rendered in the past—our system of jurisprudence depends, to a great extent, on cases which have been adjudicated previously—those all-important “precedent cases.”   

Is it any wonder, then, with so much of our cultural heritage tied to stories and history, that storytelling as a concept can be used to help you build your new business?  It would be foolhardy to think otherwise.

Most start up business is based on a perceived need in the marketplace for a product or service. Someone—generally, the business founder—recognizes that a product or service is needed, and understands how to put that product or service into a format which will meet a need or demand.  

But the foundation of a new business goes deeper than that.

The founder must communicate his perceptions, his beliefs in his abilities, his creativity and ingenuity to those with whom he surrounds himself so that they “catch the dream” and, thereby, become part of the success of the startup.   The most common way to communicate these ideas?  By telling a story and sharing prior experiences. 

In my book Psyched for Life, I showed how to build a life based on a simple set of rules that I called the Ten Corollaries of Life™.  Rule Number Five was “Share and Weave Your Experiences into the Lives of Others.”  In the book, I shared a few stories that illustrated how storytelling techniques change the outcome of a situation in business and personal life.  

The Key to Success in Storytelling

The key to finding success in storytelling is that you must be willing to share of yourself with others…and learning how to do that may be very difficult.  Sharing with others means sharing both the good and the bad.  It means that you must share the good decisions you have made in the past and the bad decisions—because in most cases, one will learn from both decisions.  As we gain experience in business, we often learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes; and if we are afraid to share our mistakes, we quickly learn that often, others will make the same mistakes that we have made.  

So how do you use storytelling techniques to build a new business?  Let’s look at four ways to do so.

  1. Encourage your employees to discuss challenging situations they face with you– as the owner– and help to center their thinking by finding an event around which they can share their story with their fellow employees.  Make every day a “Learning Day.”
  2. Never discourage employees from sharing either good or bad experiences they have had which parallel events occurring in the new company.  Lessons learned previously have an immense value and have been paid for at the expense of others, so they should be shared and embraced by all, especially in a new business.  All knowledge has value. Knowledge shared, having been learned at the expense of others, offers an immense value savings to a new business.
  3. Create, from the inception of your company, an ongoing, written record of events that help to shape the history of the company.  At the time, you may think this to be the smallest event, or it may actually be a mega-event—but it will mean something to someone at some point in the ongoing history of the company. Believe it.   Be sure and record people who were involved.

    One company with whom I worked made a point of calling this written record “Lore and Legend” and referred back to previous learning examples whenever management meetings were held.  It encouraged newcomers to the group to contribute their own “Lore and Legend” examples, thereby enabling all to feel as though they were contributing to the growth and development of the company.

  4. Consider the role that you as the owner of a business make in the growth and development of the employees who report to you.  What you share impacts the life and future development of employees in a way that you may never appreciate or comprehend.  Be sure that the words you use in dealing with them are precise and communicate what you want to communicate.

    One must only hear the following story to understand the importance of precision:

    A young co-manager of a restaurant walked up to me when I– as an owner– entered the restaurant.  He said to me, with the previous day’s bank deposit bag in hand, “We need to make the deposit.”  

    My response was casual, almost offhand, and I replied, “Run this down to the bank for me, would you please?”  

    When he returned, sweaty and gasping for breath, I immediately assumed the worst—some nefarious criminal had robbed him of our deposit, or he had been injured in some way.  I said to him, “You’re sweating and gasping for breath.  What happened to you?”  

    He appeared confused, looked at me and said, “Nothing, boss, I just ran the deposit down to the bank.  But it sure is awfully hot outside to be running today.  But I did just what you said.  I ran the deposit to the bank.”

    Needless to say, I learned a significant lesson about precision in the choice of requests.

    And in reading this story, you have seen an example of storytelling in action.  It’s a simple story, but one that actually happened, and the basis, in fact, conveys the importance of your communication style to subordinates.  You probably smiled when you thought of an employee taking a casual remark so literally, and running the deposit to the bank, but remember—if you ask them to do something, chances are good that they will do it—just as you have asked them to.

As you start your new business, think of ways you—and other employees– can “share and weave your experiences into the lives of others” and use storytelling techniques to illustrate both the good and the bad in the business.  Your life will be enriched, and your business will prosper for it.

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