While any corporate communication expert strives to get their company’s message across in the most professional way possible, presenting your ideas with data alone just isn’t going to cut it.

Because behind every Google calendar appointment or power tie is a human being that runs on emotion and needs more than just spreadsheets and diagrams to really internalise what you’re saying. Since time immemorial, people have made sense of the world using the power of story and despite massive advances in communication technology, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Today’s most successful corporations are investing heavily in incredible storytelling in all aspects of their businesses from internal communication to brand awareness. Apple is one of the best examples of this. On paper, you could argue that Apple products aren’t as impressive as the hefty price tag suggests (sorry, Apple fans) but it’s because the brand leaves the task of simply stating what their technology can do to the competition. Meanwhile, Apple comes out on top by creating buzz and managing consumer demand that manifests in lines stretching around the block.

So why is story so important in corporate communication?

Facts only go so far

When we talk about storytelling in the business world, it may be easily confused with skewing the facts to spin a situation so the company comes out smelling like roses, but in reality it’s quite the opposite. At IE School of Human Sciences and Technology, students are taught that telling engaging stories that support the facts has a far greater chance of making an impact.

Laura Illia, academic director of the Executive Master in Corporate Communication at IE, insists there’s more to getting people on board with your company’s message than simply stating what’s true.

“Corporate cultures that try to tell stories using only a Powerpoint presentation are stuck in the 80s. Today, It’s all about engagement,” she said.

“When you have a story to tell, it has to be supported by the facts. But just because you put something up on the wall doesn’t mean people will pay attention.”

A new generation

Illia argues that storytelling as part of a company’s internal corporate communication strategy is more important now than ever before.

“Corporations are appearing and disappearing more than ever,” she points out. “And people are far more exposed to changes in their daily jobs than they used to be.

“In many cases, people are under an intense amount of pressure to perform and in some cases, ethical values are totally misaligned. This is a particular problem with millennials, who have been witnessing these changes first-hand and don’t expect to be at the same company their whole lives.

“Today, corporations need to focus on leadership and engagement.”

The rules of engagement

Effective storytelling as part of a communication strategy is vital to keeping your team on the same page. The sad fact of the matter is that most employees won’t tell their boss they’re disinterested or unmoved by your new strategy to drive the company forward. Illia explains that by actively involving members of the team in the stories you’re telling, you make them feel like an important part of the business.

“Involving your team in the storytelling process makes employees more loyal and productive. It’s not about telling stories from a top-down approach. We reach others by listening to their needs. Companies need platforms to share and create knowledge about the people who work there so organic stories emerge.”

Being sure to call people by their name is one simple way to create that dynamic. Addressing individuals and illustrating how integral they are to the company’s future success as well as offering them the opportunity to explain the challenges they may face will make any presentation sound far less like a lecture (and take a little of the burden off your shoulders).

And as far as your external strategy goes, the ability to foster better relationships with consumers through social media has dramatically improved the kind of stories marketers can tell. But unless engaged effectively, your target market will probably just keep their opinions to themselves. It’s companies that learn to build communities around their product and make it personal to them that truly understand how to tell the kind of stories that hook people.

Build a narrative structure

Ever noticed how people’s eyes tend to wander around the room about two-thirds of the way through most Powerpoint presentations? This is usually about the time they start wondering when it’s going to finish or perhaps their minds have already wandered towards lunch (and good luck telling a story that’ll get their attention once they’ve started thinking about food).

By structuring your corporate communication in a clear way using the rule of three, for example (it’s no coincidence that most modern stories are told in a three-act structure: beginning, middle and end), people are more likely to engage simply because they already have the structure of story imprinted in their DNA. It’s like a roadmap to give your audience a more complete picture that they’re far more likely to buy into.

Whether a company is launching a new product, laying out their sales projections to shareholders or trying to get staff onboard with a rebranding, a clear narrative is key to garnering the maximum amount of attention. Explaining things in terms of “we did this and therefore this happened, but if we do that, something better might happen” or “you have this problem, therefore this is the solution” engages people in a way a graph simply cannot, no matter how steep its upward trajectory.

Don’t ignore the negative

It might not surprise you that one of the reasons people tend not to trust business executives who talk about how amazing their company is backed up by only the most positive trends, is that they know life doesn’t really work like that—not to mention the fact that it’s a pretty boring story. If the protagonist of your favorite movie had no inner conflict, dealt with any potential problems quickly and effectively and generally led a life that got better and better, you’d probably stop watching before you’d even finished your popcorn.

But while you probably want to tell uplifting and inspiring stories, to ignore your company’s challenges, mistakes and failures is to ignore story altogether. It’s these dramas that keep us coming back to our favorite television shows every week and the same principles work for corporate communication.

“If the facts are mostly bad, maybe you feel like you want to ignore them,” warns Illia. “But the best thing to do is stress the negative and frame it in a positive way. If you only tell the good part of the story, you fail to recognise the lessons and miss the opportunity to focus on what can be done better in the future, which is a really positive story.”

Getting ahead of any negatives gives you better control of the situation and allows you to tell a better story before others make up their own. You don’t want bad news leaked in the press before you’ve even explained the situation to your staff. Because you can guarantee a tabloid journalist won’t be so keen to structure it positively.

Images are key

images are key to successful marketing campaigns and if you want to tell better stories

Focusing on story by no means suggests throwing the baby out with the bathwater and doing away with Powerpoint altogether. It’s just that visual aids must be exactly that: “aids.” Using images, graphs and infographics (hugely effective) to tell your story gives your audience a point of reference and drives your message home, but people respond best to people.

So for every tedious pie chart you present to your employees, make sure there’s a story behind it that explains what it should mean to them (or why they should care). Do away with the corny stock photos you used in your high school projects and use pictures of real people your audience can relate to. If you’re trying to create a certain feeling about a product or idea, use images and videos that convey that sentiment (notice how no one ever seems indifferent to Coca-Cola in their commercials).

Courses at IE School of Human Sciences and Technology teach students that visual storytelling is often the most engaging way to keep your message top of mind.

Send a clear message

As with any good storyteller, you need to know exactly what it is you want to communicate in order to keep your message concise and avoid confusing your audience. Have you ever been blown away by a movie that was packed with big stars, eye-popping special-effects and action set pieces, only to walk out wondering what it was all about?

That’s because somewhere along the way the director lost sight of what the true essence of the story was and chose style over substance. Big shiny robots do tend to sell a lot of cinema tickets, but leave a lot to be desired in the drama department.

When reviewing your presentation or marketing campaign, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to ramble on about technical specifications when you could be creating a desire for the product.   

Speak to the heart

If we’ve learned anything from this social media-driven, politically diverse society we currently find ourselves in, it’s that playing to people’s emotions is a pretty effective tool for winning hearts and minds. While it’s a somewhat scary notion, a post-truth world suggests that people actually favor emotion over facts, even when those facts are proven to be false.

In fact, research suggests that emotional responses to a publicity campaign influences the decision of the consumer more than the content of the advert by 3-2-1 in television and 2-to1 in print. So while there’s no argument that facts aren’t vital to effective storytelling, this does highlight the power of connecting with people emotionally. 

Apple is a great example of a company that knows how to tell a compelling story that evokes emotion. Their advertising focuses less on the products themselves, but the feeling you get from using them (think of those colorful iPod commercials in the mid-2000s). We’ve even seen two big-screen adaptations of the story of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs. It’s a company that can’t stop telling stories.

The blame game

Anyone who’s experienced a business situation where something has gone seriously wrong will tell you that one of the first things people tend to do is declare “it wasn’t my fault.” But creating a villain out of one person is often not the most constructive story to tell.

Illia recalls how Costa Cruises entirely blamed the captain for the sinking of the Costa Corcordia in 2012.

“If you did nothing wrong, it wouldn’t make sense to accept responsibility. But that story played out as an attack on the captain.

“In general, being more collaborative and sharing responsibility makes a crisis much more task-oriented and steers it in a more positive direction.”

Learn to tell the right stories

People are better at telling stories than they think, but it’s not always easy to know the right story to tell in every situation. Is it best framed as a happy story? Who’s the hero? The villain? How does it end? 

Illia, whose program offers classes on the importance of telling captivating stories in 21st-century corporate cultures, says that there are so many factors to take into consideration when preparing your narrative that it can be hard to know where to start. Sometimes there isn’t a right answer, but choosing an angle that will resonate with your audience is the right start. Your company’s story is something that will grow and change over time.  

Laura Illia is the academic director at IE School of Human Sciences and Technology’s Executive Master in Corporate Communication which covers how to better use stories in external and internal communication as well as digital strategies, business management and real-world projects. Learn more at www.ie.edu or call +34 91 568 96 00 for more information.