The CFO as a Business Storyteller

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Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity. Customers must be convinced to buy your company's products or services, employees and colleagues to go along with a new strategic plan or reorganization, investors to buy (or not to sell) your stock, and partners to sign the next deal. But despite the critical importance of persuasion, most executives struggle to communicate, let alone inspire, write Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer.

Let’s say an organization is fending off an aggressive hostile takeover. There are late night clandestine meetings with critical stakeholders. The CFO secretly slips out of town to meet with new potential backers. A boardroom discussion between the parties blows up and dissolves into angry outbursts and threats. Financial reporters are stalking the sidewalk outside the corporate HQ trying to buttonhole anyone who might drop even a hint of what’s going on.

Finally the takeover is averted; the raiders are sent packing. Should the company issue the standard boilerplate announcement as lawyers typically advise or should it post a gripping account under the name of the CEO or CFO of its successful defense?

Content marketing is hot and with it so is business storytelling. “Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity. Customers must be convinced to buy your company's products or services, employees and colleagues to go along with a new strategic plan or reorganization, investors to buy (or not to sell) your stock, and partners to sign the next deal. But despite the critical importance of persuasion, most executives struggle to communicate, let alone inspire. Too often, they get lost in the accoutrements of company-speak: PowerPoint slides, dry memos, and hyperbolic missives from the corporate communications department. Even the most carefully researched and considered efforts are routinely greeted with cynicism, lassitude, or outright dismissal,” write Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer, in a Harvard Business Review piece titled Storytelling That Moves People.

In the article McKee, an award winning Hollywood screenwriter, advises executives to toss their PowerPoint slides and learn to tell good stories instead. So why should a CEO or CFO or any C-level executive pay attention to a screenwriter, asks Fryer, a HBR senior editor?

Telling a good story well imbues an idea with emotion. By weaving a lot of information into the telling you also arouse your listener's emotions and energy.  “If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story,” the authors say, “then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

Sounds simple, right? But not every C-level exec is a natural story-teller. Still, it is a skill that can be learned and practiced. First, however, you have to establish the right mindset. That includes a willingness to take some risk by exposing your true emotions rather than the innocuous material the PR people are likely to suggest. Then you have to ignore the corporate lawyers; they don’t like risk and will never sign off on any emotional storytelling. Finally, you have to be willing to take some heat personally as well as professionally. If your story engages people emotionally and inspires them to action, it inevitably can arouse opposition too. You need confidence in the truth of your story and the message it embodies.

In a recent article published by the Content Marketing Institute, Jordan Warman describes Two Little-Known Devices behind Effective Business Storytelling.  The first he calls a theme or controlling idea. As he describes it, the theme can be expressed as a statement about cause and effect that conveys what the story is about. The second device he calls story-as-argument.

This is where the willingness to take some heat comes in. Story-as-argument, says Warman, “will always demand that an organization take a stand on some issue. And this necessarily means that a certain percentage of its prospects will be turned off. “Don’t worry about it and tell your marketing people to cool it too because those for whom the story resonates emotionally will get your message and you will have established a lasting bond with them, which is what you really wanted in the first place. The others may come around or not.

This blogger specializes in developing online content for numerous companies. Most executives say they want emotionally powerful content, but in the end they succumb to the PR people and lawyers and pull their punches, leaving me to write the usual pabulum for them.  As a ghostwriter I would much prefer to write for the CEO or CFO storyteller willing to do better.

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