Businesses big and small are discovering storytelling.
What I love about telling stories is that you never really know what impact a story may have on a listener—or what actions it may provoke. Take Tennessee English teacher Jimmy Neal Smith, for example. Jimmy Neal and some of his students heard a storyteller on his car radio. It was all the inspiration he needed. As the man in charge of his hometown heritage festival in Jonesborough, TN, Jimmy Neal saw storytelling as the perfect centerpiece for the festival. And so the National Storytelling Festival (NSF) was born in the 1970s.
Today, the Festival draws thousands each year to Jonesborough. And the International Storytelling Center, also headquartered here, seeks “. . . to further infuse storytelling into the mainstream of our society . . . and to promote the power of storytelling and its creative applications to build a better world.” From its humble beginnings more than 30 years ago, the NSF has grown into an international celebration of storytelling funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission. All because one man with vision heard a storyteller . . . .
Short stories. Long odds.
Fast forward to 1989. What were the odds that a longish-haired 30-something corporate executive would attract the attention of high-powered, hardwired CEOs representing a cross section of American business? Not good.
Never mind that I was the COO of Armstrong International, Inc., a family-owned global manufacturer with locations in the United States, Canada, Europe and the Far East. It was November, 1989, and the scene was a classroom overlooking the dunes at a California resort—the site of a Master Skunk Camp run by Tom Peters and a follow-up to Tom’s previous five-day camp.
During a Bragging Session, each participant had 10 minutes to showcase how they had applied what they had learned in the original session with Tom Peters. No holds barred. The room looked like a staging area for a Ringling Brothers parade. One CEO was dressed in a skunk outfit. Others had loads of equipment, displays and assorted paraphernalia. I brought in four sheets of paper, each containing a story—a simple narrative about the life and time of Armstrong, its people and business. When I finished the last story, the wave of questions swelled and washed over me. They continued right up until our break time.
That was then. This is now.
When I first started using storytelling as a deliberate leadership technique at Armstrong International, Inc. nearly two decades ago, I was amazed that more business leaders weren’t doing the same. Every company had people and therefore stories. So why weren’t they taking advantage of them?
Well, today they are. Nowadays, corporate storytelling is—dare I say it—“hot.” The business world is now firmly in the grasp of what the National Storytelling Festival calls, “. . . an international renaissance of storytelling,” which is witnessing people around the world “. . . turning to the ancient tradition of storytelling to produce positive change in our world.”
All have found compelling links between stories and business success. But that’s far from the end of the story. Assisted by inventive enterprises like The Storytellers, StoryQuest and The Corporate Storyteller, companies around the world are discovering what some of us have known all along: Storytelling is a powerful leadership model and an extraordinary business asset.
Stories have helped a leading restaurant chain and a major pharmaceutical firm enunciate change programs. Stories played a role in the leadership strategies of a global beverage maker, helped improve the service in a Las Vegas mega-resort and contributed to the transformation of the world’s leading energy company. Stories and storytelling, it seems, are alive and well—and gaining strength daily.
While I am no longer just one of a very few corporate storytellers out there, it does my heart good to reflect on the fact that I was one of the first. Remember, if you want to start something, drive home a point, make an impact or simply lead an audience to thoughtful reflection, tell a story . . . .