By Anthea Rowe
We do it to ourselves.
As communicators, we often complain about not having a seat at the table. About not being respected by senior leaders. Being treated as order-takers.
The complaints are valid. Business leaders often bring in communicators as after-thoughts. As poster-makers and order-takers. Writers, editors and PowerPoint tweakers.
Because we’re good at those things. And they’re often necessary. Or useful. The problem is: we shouldn’t be defined by the tools we use or the tactics we employ. We should be defined by our ability to measurably support organizational goals.
And if we’re not, we have only ourselves to blame.
It’s our responsibility to build business acumen. To understand our organizations’ business models intimately. To read and interpret financial reports and corporate metrics unrelated to our discipline but crucial to our organizations’ operations.
It’s our responsibility to focus first on the issues that matter to our leaders – and second on the issues we consider communication priorities. If your company is struggling to get products out the door or losing market share to a flashy new competitor, your plan to launch a new intranet will fall on deaf ears.
But we get so caught up sometimes in our communications principles and best practices that we forget the reason our roles exist. Most comms functions exist to manage relationships with key stakeholders who impact our organizations’ long-term success. It’s our job to know who has the power and the desire to make or break our organizations – and to hold those people close.
That’s why the storytelling mantra makes me crazy.
Conference presenters, online publications, and countless articles and seminars exhort us to “tell stories.” For any team, department or organization, storytelling has been the panacea, the prescription for what ails you.
But telling communicators to tell stories is like telling accountants to add numbers. We naturally do it.
Not because storytelling is an end in itself but because storytelling is a means to an end. Accountants add numbers to track spending and build budgets. Communicators tell stories to inform, persuade and engage.
Not all storytellers are created equal. But storytelling is inherent to the work we do, and most of us are good at it. Unfortunately, the focus on storytelling in our discipline detracts from what should be our key focus as communicators: business, strategic and financial goals and challenges.
As leadership expert Susan Colantuono says in a TEDx Talk about the leadership gender gap: executives fail to even mention business, strategic and financial acumen as a requirement for leaders because “it’s a given.”
For those of you protesting that storytelling is a vital tool in the communicator’s toolbox – I wholeheartedly agree with you. Without storytelling, our communications can be dull and lifeless. Heck, a real-life story would make this article immeasurably better.
Storytelling reaches people better and lasts longer than other types of communication. Cognitive scientists find sensory words stimulate brains differently than abstract words. Words associated with action – “kick”, “grasp” – and with odours or textures – “perfume,” “coffee,” “velvet” “leathery” – engage different parts of our brains than abstract words like “pretty” and “key.” Great writing literally stimulates our brains.
And an informal study by Stanford marketing professor Jennifer Aaker found 63% of her subjects remembered a story recounted by their peers. Only 5% remembered a statistic.
So storytelling clearly serves an important function. But storytelling is a differentiating skill set that comes after organizational acumen.
That’s why you’ll see IABC London focusing on business, strategic and financial acumen this year. Our professional development events will kick off with a local focus but build toward organizational case studies that illustrate how comms supports an organizational need.
We’ll hear from 2017 Virtuoso winners on the measurable communication plans they built to address organizational needs. We’ll hear non-communicators and business leaders describe the role communications plays in driving their organizations’ success. We’ll learn about financial planning, budget building and annual reporting.
And we’ll encourage more individuals to apply for the Outstanding Communicator Award. Created in 2017, this award recognizes an individual who exemplifies excellence in communications and demonstrates strong commitment to communications in their professional work.
Let’s hear it for a year without storytelling.