If you’re lucky enough to attend this year’s IABC World conference in Washington, just make sure you get along to hear the opening key-note. The speaker may look familiar. In fact, you may have seen her at an IABC Victoria event or two. And now, as the first Australian key-note speaker at an IABC World Conference, and the opening one at that, Gabrielle Dolan is taking her storytelling to the World stage.
Business storytelling is something most of us are familiar with. Some of us may have even used it with our Senior Leaders to bring an audience on a journey, share strategy or kick-start change. But 12 years ago, telling stories for business purposes was still in its infancy down under. Thanks to a ‘lights on’ moment when Gabrielle saw the power a personal story can have on a workforce, she traded in her corporate job and pursued something she knew was powerful.
As she explained:
“I was working at NAB, and I’d spent my whole life in corporate Australia. But my lights on moment came when I was working as a Communication and Change Manager on a major project. I was working with a woman called Merrin, who had told me about how she had spent time living in Dublin on weekends, commuting to Glasgow each Sunday to work and doing the reverse on Fridays. She did a lot of flying. The hosties would go through the safety instructions and Merrin would be catching up on the newspaper and generally not really pay attention. Until one particular flight. The plane hit some bad weather coming into Glasgow and the pilot had to abort the landing twice. Before the third attempt to land the captain came over the PA and told the passengers that they would make one final attempt but before doing so, the flight attendants would go through the safety instructions one more time. Suddenly passengers were paying attention, asking questions, counting rows to the exits because they were afraid they would crash. Thankfully the plane landed and Merrin lived to tell the story.
“When it came time to thinking about how to deliver a message about a major organisational change that would take place over two years, I remembered Merrin’s story. The message of the story matched the message she wanted to deliver about the project: although the project would be long, and people would receive lots of information about it, they needed to pay attention because that information was going to personally affect all of them at some stage.
“So Merrin shared her story. And it was the first time I sat back and saw the impact of how sharing a personal story can help a business message stick. The people impacted by the change referred back to Merrin story for the next 6-12 months. It just goes to show how powerful a personal story can be in delivering a business message.
“That was my sliding doors – or lights on – moment. When I had the option to leave the organisation a couple of years later, I thought about the power of storytelling and thought, ‘I could sell this. I’ll need to really educate the market about it, and why it’s so powerful’ and so I did it.
“The hardest thing at the start was trying to convince people of the need for storytelling in business. This was 12 years ago and storytelling had this fluffy ‘once upon a time’ vibe whereas business leaders thought ‘I have a very serious job, storytelling won’t work for me.’
“A lot of it is that people don’t believe or understand the power of storytelling until they see it for themselves.
“In the work that I do now, I get a lot of requests for one-on-one sessions with CEOs, but I tend to turn them down. I can tell them a story, just the two of us, but without feeling the power from the reaction of their peers, it doesn’t have the same affect. They tell me it’s because I’m a professional, but story telling works much better in groups.”
“When I go in to companies to share the skill of storytelling, a lot of people find difficulty in connecting their personal stories to a business purpose. They’ll say, ‘I don’t have any stories, I’m just normal.’ But it’s not the big ‘uh huh moments’ you need to share, it’s not the greatest tragedies or triumphs, it’s the day-to-day stories about your kids, family, or riding your bike that are most powerful. Once leaders realise that, they realise their lives are rich with stories.
“To help leaders find their stories, I ask them about the message they want to get across. It may be communicating new values or a strategy. Values can be hollow or meaningless unless you really understand what they mean and attach a meaning to them.
“For example, I was working with an Australian company whose values included ‘Doing the right thing’. I took one of the leaders through the process and asked her what doing the right thing meant to her. She told me a story about her Dad. He was a great swimmer, good enough to trial for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In his heat, he was leading the pack, but missed out on properly touching the tiles when doing his tumble turn. He could have kept swimming – after all there was no technology to pull him up. But instead, he went back and touched the wall, coming seventh and missing out on the Olympics. She often asked her father if he regretted going back to touch the wall. He didn’t, because it was the right thing to do. Doing the right thing isn’t just something you do when people are watching, it’s when they’re not watching that is most important. And so this leader went on to use her father’s story within the organisation, and the idea of ‘going back to touch the wall’ began to be embedded in the company’s lingo. ‘I know when we’re doing the right thing because we go back and touch the wall’.”
You can hear Gabrielle share more of her wisdom on storytelling for business at the IABC World Conference in Washington DC on 11 June 2017. Or, read all about it in Gabrielle’s new book, Stories for Work: the essential guide to business storytelling.