Why we should be more playful and tell more stories at work

When I was about six I decided I wanted to do an English degree and then be a writer. I had my life all planned out, until the realisation hit me in the second year of my degree that I might actually have to get a job and earn some money rather than just sort of announcing ‘ta dah, I’m a writer’. I also lost some of my passion for reading during my degree (which is pretty sad really, after looking forward to it for over 10 years), and didn’t write anything, except the obligatory essays, pretty much throughout it. Hence market research beckoned*, and the rest is history. I still don’t read a huge amount, but more than I did a few years ago. Mainly work-related books though, I must admit.

Anyway, as part of my day job I’m looking at how we can incorporate storytelling techniques into our research communications and deliverables (presentations, reports etc.). As a precursor to this, I went to a workshop a couple of weeks ago organised by the MRS (Market Research Society, our industry body) about storytelling – in other words, I basically had a day out in London to attend a workshop on something I find really interesting (i.e. stories – whether I read much or not, I still like a good story), and called it work. I’ve also done a bit of my own reading and research, and now I have to make up my own story about storytelling and tell that to everyone internally so they use storytelling in their work. I know, tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

So I’ve done quite a bit of thinking recently about stories. In business, we tend to think telling stories is too playful, too much like fiction (and we’re in the business of DATA, not fiction) and too far away from the way we’ve been trained to analyse and report information. We think of stories as being childish and not for serious, grown-up business people who would be outraged if we told them a STORY for goodness’ sake. But isn’t this assumption questionable at best, when you think about it?

When we think of storytelling, we should probably remember that being researchers – or marketers, or whoever – we’re used to cutting through numbers, verbatim quotes, expert and client reports or whatever information it is we’re using, and finding a thread to link it all together, something to hang a narrative on, a way of presenting something our audience is (we hope) going to want to read or listen to for the whole time it takes to tell them our findings. This is just like being a storyteller. But rather than having to come up with the whole idea yourself, you get given material to use to turn into something interesting. A bit like an A-level English Language case study (or like they were when I did my A-levels anyway.) And even better, you get to make it into a visual, as well as a verbal, story, so you can really create your own story, from the words to the images. You might even get to tell the story yourself in person. Complete artistic control.

We should also remember that whether we’re in a business context or not, people are people, and people respond to stories. They respond to characters, to heroes and villains. To dramatic tension. To provocative views. To humour and playfulness. They respond to metaphors which conjure up vivid images we remember – and ultimately act on (at least hopefully, in a business context). There’s a reason most of us enjoy watching films or drama on TV, or reading books or newspapers, and it’s because we all love a good story. We remember particular characters or events, especially those where we make an emotional connection (positive or negative) with the people in the story. But we don’t often push ourselves at work – or at least I don’t – into a slightly uncomfortable place where we deliberately create themes and characters, or push metaphors further than we’d usually consider for a ‘business’ presentation. But why not? We don’t stop being people when we walk into the office in the morning. A good story is still a a good story.

I’ve been lucky recently to work on a client project which involved us compiling lots of their internal business information with trends reports to help shape their future strategy. We delivered a presentation which included, among other things, spaceships, jet packs and shopping lists – we were really fortunate that our client gave us licence to do something a bit different with what could have been a mass of uninspiring data, which was great (and very trusting of her!). We used big themes, dramatic language, asked provocative questions, made use of futuristic and slightly tongue-in-cheek visuals, and hardly quoted any specific numbers. And we got some great feedback after the event, because people within the business are using our metaphors and visuals to talk to their teams and think about their strategy in a memorable way. Job done, I think!

I’m sure the purists out there will criticise dramatising things in a business context. But if you want to inspire someone, you’re hardly going to bore them into action with a deck of 200 charts are you? To be fair, it’s been a push to go a bit out-there with some of our ideas, because even when you’re up for the idea of including rockets and jet packs, something nags at you, is it too flippant? are we trivialising things too much? But if our story of spaceships and the future engaged and inspired the audience to build something exciting and shape the future of their business (and apparently it did), then as far as I’m concerned, it’s all good. (And the client was happy. So I’m happy. Everyone’s happy, yay.)

I think where I’ve got to then in my thinking about stories, is that we should be more playful at work, especially in how we communicate, and we should go out on a limb every now and again. And even if that limb’s a bit uncomfy for a while, people will start to see we’re onto something, and at some point they’ll come and join us, so we might as well get the best view by being up on that limb first.

So are you coming to join me up here then or what?

*Of course, like most people who work in market research, I fell into it as a career rather than looking for it. But I’m glad I did, I might still be an out of work author who-can’t-be-bothered-to-write if I hadn’t. And I get to do storytelling as part of my job, which is pretty cool. 

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