Storytelling An Effective Communication Tool

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Stories are the fabric of our lives (Soin & Scheytt, 2006; Barker & Gower, 2010). They help us make sense of what we are, where we come from and what we want to be (Soin & Scheytt, 2006). It is part of human experience. When people share their stories, listeners naturally focus their attention, engaging in the teller’s experience. The deliberate and effective use of storytelling establishes links between participants and sets the stage for high performance (Kahan, 2006).

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines communication as a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior. Effective communication is very important. There are three main types of communication, verbal, nonverbal and visual (Mikoluk, 2013). Storytelling falls under the verbal category. The Narrative Paradigm Theory, developed by Walter Fisher suggests that all humans are storytellers and all meaningful communication is in the form of stories. We have a long history of oral/verbal communication. We used to pass down folklore and lessons through the generations via storytelling.

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Storytelling enhances the communication process. It allows a clearer transfer of ideas and adds value to conversations. Walter Fisher mentions that listeners can relate to these stories based on personal values and shared past experiences (Barker & Gower 2010). Stories assist in clarifying key values and help in demonstrating the way things are done in an organization (EDUCBA, n.d.). How effective the oral communication is will depend on the speed, volume, pitch, voice modulation, clarity of speech and the non-verbal communications like visual cues and body language (EDUCBA, n.d.).

The Storytelling Model of Organizational Communication introduced in the article Strategic Application of Storytelling in an Organisation integrates the Organizational Diversity Continuum to recognize the importance of heterogeneity and time (Barker & Gower 2010). With the growing diversity in the workplace, there is a need for effective communication across all levels. Differences in age, gender, race, culture, and employees who speak English as a second language present challenges in communication. In a small company such as the one that I work for, the business partners are expatriates then we have the management team, lawyers and support staff who are nationals. The flow of information comes from either the partners, administration manager or finance manager via electronic mail. Staff meetings are a rarity. My co-workers are from different ethnicities with different cultural backgrounds and most if not all speak English as a second language. The receiver can at times misinterpret email communication within the office. I found that telephone conversations and or face-to-face communication is explicable and allows for quicker feedback and correction.

A survey conducted by About.Com found that the top three reasons why people did not like their jobs were communication related (Eisenhauer, 2015). Poor communication breeds uncertainty and doubt, it turns into rumors, gossip and or even resentment and causes low productivity (Eisenhauer, 2015).

According to statistics published online by Bluesource, the cumulative cost per-worker per-year resulting in communications barriers is £19,666 (Lawrence, 2018). Countless negative consequences have come about from poor cultural communication skills; lost business, lost productivity and damages to a company’s reputation (Barker & Gower, 2010).

We use storytelling when introducing changes, establishing and shifting of power, sharing complex ideas, selling products services and ideas, a call to action and in organizational leadership. Stories make ideas or concepts more relatable to the receiver. They can show cause and effect for instance in the New Testament of the Bible Jesus often taught lessons using parables to describe His relationship with God and with His followers.

The Parable of the Three Servants is a story in the Bible told by Jesus (Mat 25:14-30, Good News Bible 1998; Tim, 2008). A master who is about to go on a journey, puts his servants in charge of his property. According to each of their abilities, he gives them gold coins. To one he gives five thousand gold coins, to another two thousand and to the last, one thousand. He then leaves for his trip. The servant, who received the five thousand coins, invests his money and earns another five thousand. The servant who received the two thousand coins invested his portion and earned another two thousand. However, the servant who received the one thousand decided to bury the money his master gave him. After some time the master returns and settles accounts with them. In turn, each servant came to see the master. He was very happy with the two servants who managed double what he gave them. Then the third servant came in and spoke with the master, he said, “I know you are a very hard man, I was scared and so I hid your money in the ground”. The master told him, “You lazy servant, you should have deposited my money in the bank and I would have received it all back with interest when I came back. Now take the money away from him and give it to the one who has ten thousand coins. For to every person who has something, even more will be given and he will have more than enough but the person who has nothing; even the little that he has will be taken from him”. The lazy servant was then tossed out into the dark (Mat 25:14-30, Good News Bible 1998). An interpretation of this story, Jesus (the master) entrust his believers with his gifts (salvation, promise of eternal life etc.) He goes away (his impending crucifixion). Upon his return (resurrection/ascension), he takes into account all that you as a believer have done. Separating and rewarding the faithful and casting aside the unfaithful (Sirico, n.d).

I agree that the strategic application of storytelling can lead towards effective communication in diverse organisations especially in multi-national companies. Smaller companies do face the obstacles however hardly ever does it become an issue. In my current job when I need to explain banking procedures to other colleagues, storytelling comes in handy. I can give examples without the usual banking terms/jargon to simplify for instance the account opening process. Storytelling was a necessary part of my previous job as a bank officer. I was able to communicate at the customer level and in turn when reporting to our line manager and department head. Senior staff and managers with the skill set to communicate effectively on all levels are an asset. Everyone will be on the same page working towards the common organisational goals and it promotes innovativeness and productivity.

It is through storytelling that connections, engagement and trust are built. The art of taking a core message or idea and transforming it into something that resonates with the audience, resulting in them believing in, caring about and acting on the message or idea (Arisheh, 2018). Tok piksa/bokis in Tok Pinis are stories that teach ethics and morals. These stories often refer back to everyday situations to make clearer a message or idea and they can also affect decision-making.

Author Robert McKee said storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today (Kirabo, 2016). When I read this quote, I immediately thought of Walt Disney and Theodor Giesel, more commonly known by his pen name Dr Seuss. How their stories have influenced generations. My favorite Dr Seuss book is The Lorax; it is about how destructive greed is and caring for the environment. I discovered that Disney’s movies are based on much darker stories or novels. For example, the original creator of Pinocchio developed the character for a newspaper comic or serial story with the goal of showing children what will happen if you are naughty. The initial version of Pinocchio was mischievous and cruel and when the cricket tried to give him some good advice, Pinocchio killed him. Luckily, Walt Disney puts his own twist on these stories, making the endings light hearted.

How well a story is told, how often it is told and its relevance can determine whether you remember the message or idea. Take for instance the advertisements or jingles that come on television or the radio. The ads are under thirty to sixty seconds in length, precise and played once or twice during an interval. After an hour or two, you can recall the basic details for a product or service.

Storytelling is a powerful and often underused medium for internal communication between employers and employees (Arisheh, 2018). We need to place more emphasis on this skill in the workplace as it is a skill that only gets better with practice. In today’s society most of our daily interactions with others are done using social media platforms, e-mail or text messaging. When inducting new team members, stories can introduce them to the company or organisation’s culture and let them know what is specifically required from them. This gives them the direction and confidence needed to perform given tasks and their daily duties. Companies regardless of size need to hold regular staff meetings where everyone has a chance to air their views and grievances. Even a couple of days before a meeting put out a question box for employees to drop their questions for the management team to answer during the meeting. A happy and engaged team equals productivity.


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