Why storytelling is essential for business leaders

November 9, 2010, 10:02 PM UTC

Great storytellers can cut through the noise and can produce tremendous value for organizations at a very low cost. Telling a solid story is just as essential as developing a great product.

By Chris Grams, contributor

One of the most important roles to fill when trying to build a passionate community is the storyteller.

Edelman SVP Steve Rubel hit the nail on the head in a recent blog post entitled The Rise of the Corporate Transmedia Storyteller. From his post:

Organizations need to do more than just unleash their subject matter experts en masse. They need to activate them in multiple channels at once and equip them in how to create a compelling narrative — an emerging set of skills called Transmedia Storytelling.

Transmedia Storytelling doesn’t need to be fancy. It can be executed with low budget tools. However, it does need to be thought through. It requires that a business’ subject matter experts know how to simultaneously tell good stories and to do so using text, video, audio and images depending on the venue.

Now the term “transmedia storytelling” sounds a little too grandiose for my liking, but the thought behind it, that organizations need people who can tell interesting stories in any medium at very low cost, is one I agree with wholeheartedly.

Most organizations I know do not suffer from a lack of content and many produce an incredible amount of stuff that almost no one reads or watches. I find this kind of sad.

A great storyteller won’t create the most content. In fact, the opposite is often true. A talented storyteller will create a few — or even just one — story that gets told over and over.

Great storytellers are the catalysts in passionate, engaged communities.

And if that statement doesn’t resonate with you, let me make the argument through a more traditional, business-friendly lens: Would you rather invest in creating 1,000 pieces of content each reaching one person or one piece of content that reaches 1,000 people? Part of the power of storytelling is that it allows you to expand the reach of your message without increasing your production costs.

Which brings me to my story about storytelling.

Back in 2003, Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik approached my team, a five-person communications group at Red Hat, to create a short film to help kick off a keynote he was going to give at a major conference.

At the time, our team at Red Hat was very small, about five people, and we didn’t know anything about how to make movies. We told Matthew we would do it anyway.

Our first conversation was with David Burney (who is now my business partner at New Kind). David ran a creative agency that my company had worked with in the past and he had just hired a young digital media genius right out of design school.

We collaboratively wrote a story, gathered some interesting clips to illustrate it, and in a few weeks, we had pieced together a short 3.5-minute piece called “Truth Happens.” Here is what we came up with:


We thought “Truth Happens” would only be shown once, at the keynote, then we would move on to other projects. We were wrong.

Right after the keynote, people who had seen it immediately began asking us for copies (this was before YouTube, of course). I began to receive requests from folks who wanted to translate it into other languages or who wanted permission to show it at their event.

I even had a Fortune 500 company contact me and ask if we minded if they used it for their marketing. I personally showed “Truth Happens” on four continents. To our amazement, it resonated with audiences around the world, and has been viewed millions of times on the Red Hat website, on YouTube, at events, and in many other places as well.

Seven years later, the film is part of Red Hat lore. It was the first film we did, the first great story we told.

We lost count of the times people came to us asking if we could do “another Truth Happens” for them. Our team began to hire more storytellers and produced some great, inexpensive “transmedia” work.

As digital media pieces became cheaper to make and easier to distribute, we created more and more simple, inexpensive stories using digital media tools (here are some of my favorites) and recruited a full internal digital media team that could capture stories inside the company as they happened.

We tried to tell stories using every medium we could. We created unique events like the original Red Hat Road Tour 2002 and the follow-up Red Hat World Tour 2004.

We also enlisted talented writers and bloggers to tell stories online through Red Hat Magazine and opensource.com. Today, the Red Hat Brand Communications + Design team is still filled with storytellers, and I believe these talented folks have played a critical role, not just in the growth of Red Hat, but also in ensuring the broader success of the open source way of business.

Which brings me back to my original premise: you can’t build a community of passion without storytellers. Their stories become rallying cries, the flags people salute to, the legends they tell to the newbies, the North Star that puts you back on course when you are led astray.

Great storytellers cut through the noise, inspire action, and can produce tremendous value for organizations at a very low cost.

Chris Grams is president and partner at New Kind, where he builds sustainable brands, cultures, and communities in and around organizations. He regularly blogs at hackmanagement.com.

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