The power of storytelling in business

When giving a presentation or pitch, weave a narrative around the numbers to keep listeners engaged.

A storytelling approach helps your audience grasp and retain your key point or message, but it can also help demonstrate the ways finance can support other teams' activities and ultimately foster collaboration in a previously siloed organisation.

We make sense of the world by turning what happens into stories. Stories help us manage the chaos and turn it into something we can understand and follow.

From an early age we love stories, and we often want to hear the same tales over and over. Even though we've heard the story many times before, we laugh at the same funny bits, shudder at the same scary scene, and relish the heroine's triumph when it all works out OK in the end.

Think about your own favourite story. As you replay it in your mind, your brain works hard to trigger the old, familiar emotional responses whilst releasing the requisite hormones: cortisol for the tense or scary bits, oxytocin when something cute or affectionate happens, and dopamine at the happy ending. Neurologically, emotionally, and physically, we relive our stories when we retell them. Our brains are wired to create a narrative.

Why does this matter in business?

Good storytelling can help people better understand what you're saying and remember the information more clearly. It is also more likely to lead to a favourable response, which is particularly desirable if you're pitching for investment or looking for business case approval. Stories also reach the parts facts and analysis don't: our hearts. That's why they can inspire and motivate us so much. In short, your pitch, presentation, or report is far more likely to succeed if you can trigger the right emotional response in your audience at the right time.

Back in the 1990s, I led the finance team in a division responsible for building submarine cable systems and designing communication satellites. Most staff members were very intelligent engineers who seemed not to care much about money. To be honest, they didn't appear to care much about anything except what they were working on, their pet projects.

Every quarter I had to stand up and talk to them about how the division was doing financially, encouraging them to spend less or sell more of their services. I thought that, since they were engineers, they would like loads of detail, so my first presentation was basically columns of numbers with explanations alongside in a tiny font nobody could read. People actually fell asleep. My boss was not happy.

The next time, I had one slide with a few key numbers on it. I talked about those numbers, telling the story of how we hit or missed our targets, namechecking the people involved, and highlighting their contributions and achievements. I also told the story of what our performance so far was going to mean for the rest of the year and what impact it would have on the division as a whole and the team as individuals. Who isn't interested in what their bonus will be? This time people were engaged and motivated. They asked questions and made good suggestions for improving the numbers.

Engaging people through this type of storytelling approach opened up the lines of communication, and staff members began to contribute ideas about saving the company money, improving sales, and improving performance. Realising that finance staff weren't there just to say "no" to requests, colleagues began to seek my help in crafting a narrative around their technical business cases and began to understand that involving finance right from the beginning increased the likelihood their case would be approved.

Here are my tips for telling a good business story:

  • Set the scene. State what your aim is, or what you're asking for, at the beginning of the story. That establishes the context for everything that follows.
  • Ditch the detail. You have to do the work, and that supporting data has to be available. But don't drone through pages of facts and figures. Your audience can check out all the background later or ask for clarification if they need it. Include only the really important details, and get to the point quickly.
  • Focus on the benefits. Everyone listening is wondering, "What's in it for me?" So be clear about the good things in your report, proposal, or business case. Draw their attention to the positive impact your presentation will have on the company, division, people, and stakeholders involved.
  • Talk about the problems. A story without difficulties is just plain boring; we like to hear how our heroes overcome adversity. It's also unrealistic of course. So, talk about the challenges, too, but make sure you can say how they can be mitigated or overcome.
  • Get to the why. In a 2009 TED Talk, author Simon Sinek explained why purpose, that inner drive to do something that benefits the wider world, matters so much. A company's aim is usually to make money, of course, but for those who prioritise being authentic and ethical businesses, their "why" is often around making life better in some way. Including these softer benefits in your story will make it more interesting and engaging.

Jackie Fitzgerald (jackie@alchemybusinesscoaching.biz) is a UK-based coach who specialises in helping professionals fulfil their potential. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Samantha White, an FM magazine senior editor, at Samantha.White@aicpa-cima.com.


Finding your story

By Samantha White

For Ben Roberts, FCMA, CGMA, head of finance transformation at Bolton NHS Foundation Trust and a network lead on the Future Focused Finance programme, inspiration often strikes during his 40-mile commute. But a story that gets your message across doesn’t always need to be conjured out of thin air.

Roberts tries to give his audience some sort of context they can relate to. “Something that’s in the public eye or popular culture always works. People connect with these ideas,” he explained.

“When training, I tend to use abstract storytelling to make a point and then create a bridge to the reality we are facing and the message you want to get across.”

Roberts starts with the end point — in the context of training, this is the behaviour he wants the audience to adopt — considers how he can help people understand that, and tailors the story accordingly.

For example, Roberts asked his audience to compare adapting to major organisational change to competing in a popular TV programme. “Think of yourself as a contestant going through The Great British Bake Off. At first it feels really scary, but if you get into it and get used to the pace, by the end of the journey you realise it’s never as hard as you initially thought it would be, and you grow in confidence.”

The example of tennis star Andy Murray has helped Roberts convey the importance of avoiding unforced errors. Similarly, a former director of finance asked people to imagine what Olympic athlete Mo Farah feels like when he wins gold after endless hours of training, which helped encourage the team to visualise how good they will feel when they have achieved a particular goal.

“We try to tell our story through pictures because that tends to be a better way for people to take these things on board. If you take them through a conceptual idea and then apply it to reality, the idea that it’s achievable seems so much more plausible.”

A journey of learning — such as the implementation of a new costing system — where skills and know-how need to be built up on an incremental basis, is like when you first start playing with toy building bricks, Roberts said. “At first all you’ve got is enough bricks to build a little house, and then as your collection grows, all of a sudden you’ve got a town, and before you know it you’re building a city. You’ve got to give yourself time to get to grips with the material, how to build it, and once you’ve done that, you can expand quite quickly.”

In more formal contexts, such as reporting to the board, Roberts suggested keeping the concept of a golden thread in mind. “The golden thread provides signposts throughout the report for the reader to follow, signalling to them what we want them to understand as the organisation’s biggest risks, pressures, or issues, for example.” It is important to ensure that all of the elements of the report — graphs, numbers, and text — convey a consistent story to the reader, Roberts added.

Understanding the audience and how they react is the first step to crafting your story, Roberts said. “When we developed our board report, our deputy director of finance, Andrea Bennett, ACMA, CGMA, met with every member of the board to try to understand what they needed and wanted from it. If you invest time in understanding the audience, you almost find the story will produce itself.

“A mark of success is how few questions of understanding we get after we’ve told our story.”