A Coaching Power Tool By Beth Williams, Early/Mid-Career Coach, UNITED STATES
The Contrast Between Communicating vs. Storytelling
Storytelling offers the opportunity to talk with your audience not at them. Laura Holloway
As I was considering various options for my power tool, I came up with no less than 10 ideas, but there was one that I kept returning to repeatedly – the contrast between communicating and storytelling. The idea came to me as I was conducting an annual performance evaluation. I lead a team of 13 administrative professionals. Each executive assistant has a team of leaders that they support. In my role, I meet with the leaders to ensure their support needs are being met and to identify growth opportunities within our administrative staff.
One day I met with one of those leaders regarding his executive assistant, who I will call “Jane”. Jane is overwhelmingly regarded as an outstanding performer. The one area, however, that her leader felt needed improvement was how she communicated. Sure, she got key information across to the team, her wording and diction were spots on, her delivery was clear and concise; she was communicating flawlessly in all ways that mattered, except one. She was failing to reach people with her communication style. Jane’s leader suggested that an area for improvement was for her to learn how to “communicate with heart”.
Up until this point, her communication style was very direct. She was communicating with the team rather than with the team. She was failing to bring people along with her and obtain their buy-in because she wasn’t speaking to their emotions.
This concept of communicating vs. storytelling became my power tool. What if we were to reframe our notion of communicating to one of storytelling in the workplace? What would that achieve? What makes this important in a business context? For me, it was the realization is that storytelling is powerful. It is the ability to bring people along with you. It crosses boundaries. It is the common language of all humans. As Rives Collins, author of The Power of Story: Teaching Through Storytelling, put it,
Storytelling is among the oldest forms of communication. Storytelling is the commonality of all human beings, in all places, in all times.[i]
Communicating vs. Storytelling in Business
Merriam-Webster defines communication as, “A process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.”[ii] Storytelling on the other hand,
… the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.”[iii]Communication is a process to exchange information; very procedural and very clinical. While storytelling is more interactive and emotional; something that moves the listener into action by speaking to their hearts and makes them want to be a part of the journey. All of this brings us back to the quote at the beginning by Laura Holloway, “Storytelling offers the opportunity to talk with your audience, not at them.
So, why is this important, especially in a business setting? Isn’t communicating good enough? Just do a quick search of Google and you’ll find dozens and dozens of articles highlighting the benefits of storytelling as a means of communicating in the workplace. In a 2003 article in Harvard Business Review, Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, compares the two ways of persuading others—conventional rhetoric and uniting an idea with an emotion. Conventional rhetoric,
“…is what most executives are trained in. It’s an intellectual process, and in the business world, it usually consists of a PowerPoint slide presentation in which…you build your case by giving statistics and facts, and quotes from authorities. But there are two problems with rhetoric. First, the people you’re talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences…Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.
The other way to persuade people—and ultimately a much more powerful way—is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy.”[iv]
In fact, Dr. Murray Nossel, founder of Narativ and teaching faculty of the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, states that,
“For me, all storytelling boils down to one thing: connection…The quality of connection that results from storytelling is deeper, more lasting, more resonant, and therefore qualitatively more powerful than other means of communication. Whether you’re talking about sales or marketing, human resources, or content generation, your ultimate success depends heavily on your connection with an audience…. Yes, stories touch people on a cerebral level, but primarily on an experiential and emotional level. And we know that’s where change occurs. That connection-point is where true transformation takes place.”[v]
Communicating vs. Storytelling in Coaching
Power tools are about reframing perspectives from a limiting belief to one of empowerment. In the case of Jane, the one area that she was struggling with in her career was communication. She was often seen by colleagues as direct and even bossy. She believed that professional communication should be sterile and to the point. As a result, her communication style started leading to conflicts with other members of the team. We began working to reframe her idea of communicating from a plain-spoken, authoritative style to a more engaging and energizing storytelling style. Through storytelling, she could build coalitions around ideas and initiatives. Through storytelling she could win hearts and minds, resulting in more collaboration and more commitment from the team. As a result, her relationships began to improve. Why?
According to Dr. Nossel, “A great deal of conflict and breakdown occurs as a result of miscommunication… because of conscious or unconscious emotional turbulence that arises in interactions.” Narativ.com’s website states,
“Listening and storytelling form a communication paradigm. They position co-workers, leadership, and teams…in the reciprocal and mutually influential relationship of listening and telling. By design, this engenders the positive aspects of human exchange: a curiosity about what others know, an environment of trust, and an appreciation of commonality, the basis of good collaboration.”[vi]
When reframing what it means to communicate in a coaching session, the following questions may be useful:
- What does communication mean to you?
- What happens when you communicate with [person]?
- How has this relationship impacted your current work environment?
- What would you like to do differently the next time you communicate?
- How would you like to feel after a discussion with [person]?
- How would you like him/her to feel?
- How could you make that happen?
Deliberating Communicating vs. Storytelling Power Tool
After deliberating over my power tool options during the past few months, this reframing of communication to storytelling resonated more and more. I began looking at my own communication and adjusting my own technique, particularly with those relationships that have been strained in the past. By altering my notion of what business communication is to that of what it should be my relationships have now begun to evolve into more positive, productive, and collaborative partnerships. My hope is that, when applying this tool to future work with clients, they too can begin to reframe what corporate communication looks like and the paradigm shift can spread like a ripple effect throughout our organization.
[i]Collins, R. & Cooper, P. (2005 Nov.). The Power of Story: Teaching Through Storytelling 2nd Edition. Waveland Pr. Inc.
[iii]What is Storytelling? (n.d.).
[iv]Fryer, B. (2003 June). Storytelling that Moves People.
[v]Caprino, K. (2018 Mar). How Storytelling Can Improve Business Communication And Transform Workplaces.
[vi] About. (n.d.)