How to use storytelling in your business and career

How to use storytelling in your business and career

Gabrielle Dolan

Gabrielle Dolan spent much of 2020 in lockdown in Melbourne. But she still found plenty of opportunities for experiences that could become great stories.

As she’s been doing for years, she wrote these stories down. Not merely to make sense of them or even to remember them, but rather to find the lessons in them and determine how she can use them. These stories, no matter how mundane, can become the basis for communicating a message later on.

And let’s face it, many of the experiences we had in lockdown were mundane: but with so many of us experiencing the same thing at the same time, these individual stories from behind closed doors are very much collectively relatable.

Gabrielle’s particularly good at storytelling in business, having just written her latest book Magnetic Stories, on the topic, and having spent the past 16 years speaking and touring the world to share her lessons on storytelling in business and leadership.  

It’s a career that stemmed from her previous life at NAB. Gabrielle started as a trainee computer operator and worked her way up the business into leadership positions where she saw that storytelling was separating the good and not-so-good leaders from the brilliant leaders.

She left the bank knowing that storytelling is a critical skill. And, like any skill, it can be taught.

“I noticed that with stories, people tended to not only understand what you were saying, but they would also remember it. Which is important in communications,” she said.

But now that Magnetic Stories has just been released this month, the lessons on storytelling are having an entirely different kind of impact. She’s not doing the global speaking events, but she is picking up plenty of interest from businesses and their people wanting to learn about storytelling: especially with workplaces becoming more virtual, than physical.

A lot has changed in 12 months, and that includes how we tell stories and relate to and connect with others in business.

“We have often talked about bringing our whole selves to work, but it took everyone working from home for us to achieve that,” Gabrielle tells Women’s Agenda.

We not only saw into the homes and personal lives of colleagues from computer screens, we also got to know their kids, their cats, their curtains, and the various nicknacks adorning their homes.

In this collective experience, many of us found ourselves opening up with clients and colleagues about how we were coping: how the home school was going, how we were dealing with flatmates 24/7, and what we did during our one hour of exercise.

“People started sharing personal things,” says Gabrielle. “And I’ve seen an increase in the amount of people wanting to learn about story-telling.”

Magnetic Stories is Gabrielle’s sixth book on storytelling. She admits that when she finished her fifth, she thought she was done. How much else could she possibly write on the subject?

But then she started to look at how businesses were communicating their brand, and sharing their own story. She saw that a lot of businesses were doing it wrong – and plenty of others did not see brand storytelling as important.

Many businesses simply don’t understand what a brand is or should be, says Gabrielle. It’s not a logo or a corporate colour. It’s not even a key spokesperson (although any one individual can have a huge impact on a brand). Rather, a brand is the stories that people say about you when you’re not in the room. 

Gabrielle says her latest book is relevant to businesses of all sizes, and also to the personal brands of individuals.

“Everyone has a brand, even individual leaders have brands,” she says. “ So how do you amplify that, demonstrate that, engage and connect people with it? You do it through the combination of stories.”

She urges more of us to see that people will be interested in our stories – especially the ones we perceive as ‘normal’ and everyday-ish, given that’s what we relate to and experience ourselves.

Telling a brand story: Authentic, succinct and relatable 

The first step to brand storytelling is to define what you want your brand to be, Gabrielle says.

“As an individual or at a company level, what is it that you want people to say about you? Is it about integrity? Do you want to be known for being innovative, or generous, or strategic, or for having great customer service?”

While you need to take direct actions on what you want to be known for, adds Gabrielle, you also need to find stories that can demonstrate those values. And these stories should be: authentic, succinct and relatable.

In brand storytelling (which can also be applied to individuals), Gabrielle describes five types of stories.

1. The creation story. On how a company or product started

2. Culture stories. On how the company is living up to its values

3. Customer stories. On the stories shared on customers

4. Challenge stories. On the resilience of the business, how it came out of COVID etc

5. Community stories. On what the company is doing to help the community.

The most common form of brand storytelling Gabrielle sees is in the creation story. But it’s not always done successfully. Too often businesses will turn such stories into boring timelines of events, rather than opening up about the why. And too often we opt for the creation story, thinking it’s the only option anyone would be interested in. Gabrielle advises looking for the possibilities in the other forms of brand storytelling.

But as well as being authentic, succinct and relatable, Gabrielle says stories must always be true. The temptation may be to stretch the truth, or even to make something up in order to better demonstrate your message. But in doing so you risk harm to your credibility and reputation. People have great bullshit detectors, lies will turn them off. Possibly forever. 

No organisation or individual is too big or too small to use storytelling with impact. 

Published by Wiley, Magnetic Stories debuted at number two in Australia in the Business and Management category, behind UK author Adam Grant. That makes Gabrielle the highest selling Australian author in that category. 

Magnetic Stories is available in all good book stores, as well as online at Booktopia, Amazon Australia, Dymocks, QBD Books, Angus & Robertson, Fishpond, Boomerang Books, Book Depository.

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