A Powerful Story Can Make (or Break) a Business

Like many managers, as a CEO, I’m responsible for communicating data to several individuals. For me, it’s employees, board members, community partners, and other supporters. In business, getting caught up in communicating goals and data through PowerPoint slides, lengthy, wordy memos, and lectures is easy. There is a place in communication for each of those mediums; however, I have found that a powerful story can make or break a business. And I’m not alone.

Robert McKee is a screenwriter, author, and teacher, and while his name may not be familiar to you, chances are the work of his students will be – Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich, The Color Purple, Gandhi, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sleepless in Seattle, Toy Story, and Nixon. Alumni of his seminars have won a total of 70 Oscars and 250 Emmy Awards. So what is the focus of his seminars? Storytelling.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, he shared that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”

I spend plenty of time writing and talking about pragmatic altruism – that doing good is good for business (more about that here). To prove this point, I can share financial information, retention statistics, a list of needs, and more – all of which are important to note, but alone, they are intellectual. What’s wrong with intellectual? It’s a great way to communicate, but it can be tough to convince people on data alone – what if your experience has been different than what my data is showing? You would likely be skeptical (and understandably so!). Even if I succeed in convincing you, that’s often the end of the road – I convince you, but I don’t inspire you to take action. To do that, I’d need to engage emotions – and let’s be honest, the only emotion we’re all feeling in a room with a PowerPoint of data, and a lengthy lecture is boredom.

When I opened a dialogue with our employees shortly after I came on board at Loretto, I realized that for many of our employees, diapers were a big deal – they were indirectly impacting our bottom line. If our employees couldn’t afford diapers, their children couldn’t go to daycare, and they were missing their shifts. When I shared that I thought we should consider opening and funding a diaper bank for employees, you can imagine the reaction from the male board members. It was understandable for them to be skeptical – because they don’t have many shared experiences with the employees who would benefit from this program – single mothers.

As I shared in my first book, Lifecircle Leadership, my solution was to introduce them to Lila. For those who haven’t read Lifecircle Leadership, I’ll share the first part of that story:

               Lila is a nurse’s assistant, and a fine one at that. Her supervisors have identified her as smart, compassionate, and committed. They all have great confidence that under the right circumstances, Lila could develop her skills and advance in her profession.

               The events of that scenario would greatly improve Lila’s life.

               From my own perspective, developing her skills and advancing her through Loretto’s own ranks would be a great benefit to our own interests.

               There’s just one problem in all of this.

               Well, not really a problem, but an issue: Lila is a single mother with two children, ages two years and four months.

               While her children are the most important thing in Lila’s life and, quite frankly, the reason that she gets up every morning and works so hard at Loretto every day, they do create a responsibility and their care often vies with her work obligations.

               Of course, that concern is significantly lightened by the daycare she has the kids enrolled in, but guess what?

               That’s right, diapers.

I went on to explain the specifics – how much diapers cost Lila, which, when added to her other necessities (housing, food) is tough to manage on a single income. The result? A diaper bank for Loretto employees that is still providing support to our employees (and Loretto’s bottom line) today.

We need to find and tell the stories to support our data to reach individuals on an intellectual and emotional level. That takes communication to the next level – inspiration and persuasion, which ultimately leads to action.