A Write-up on 'Strategic Storytelling'

Prof. Vaibhavi Kulkarni

I have always been interested in storytelling. As a child, this was limited to fiction, but as I grew older, I realised that stories are all-pervasive. My first job was in print media, as a sub editor. I edited the news articles submitted by reporters, and quickly recognized that a good edit shapes the article, tells a story, and generates reader interest, all the while staying true to the facts. Writing, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction, requires a flow and a structure that leads the readers to a specific interpretation of events. "Stories" are not just limited to the world of fiction. My subsequent stint in the corporate sector made it obvious that the pull of stories was equally strong in the business world as well.

By the time I joined IIMA, storytelling had already become a management buzzword. Numerous books and articles were published on the use of stories to retain audience attention, lead, bring about a change and propel people to act. However, most of these writings focused on storytelling as a tool used by organisations and organisational leaders. This is a very functional approach - identify the right story, structure it well and deliver it with impact to influence your audience. This is also a very limited perspective. It treats storytelling as a one-way street, with the purpose of achieving the desired end. However, before we begin to use stories as a strategic tool, it is important to realise that they also shape and construct our own reality.

In fact, we are the stories we tell ourselves. This forms our "narrative identity"-an internalised story we create to make sense of our life events. Our life stories have heroes and villains, events and characters that either hold us back or lead us towards success. Through this course, I wanted students to see how they (like all of us) make certain narrative "choices" by remembering certain life stories and discarding others. These choices become integral to our understanding of who we are and influence our life decisions. Such meaning-making processes are central to our core personality, and how we tell our life stories can impact our growth.

Simultaneously, stories we hear from people around us influence our understanding of right and wrong and appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Julie Beck terms these stories as "blueprints" that provide frameworks to position ourselves in the world. One such blueprint she recognises is to "go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids". They anchor us in our world and shape our normative beliefs.

Through this course, I wanted students to recognise the power of both visible and invisible stories in constructing their reality. At the same time, as an elective for management students, the course needed to impart context-specific learnings and ensure practical applicability. I managed to achieve this balance by dividing the course into three modules: the first one brings to fore taken-for-granted stories about our own selves as well as our world, the second module focuses on the use of stories within the organisational context and the third module involves crafting and sharing of stories by the students. In short, this 15-session course has been conceptualised as a journey for students, enabling them to discover and develop their stories, recognise how narratives function and learn how to communicate their story with impact. The three modules are briefly described below:

Module I - How Stories Shape Our World: The first module helps students recognise that storytelling is ubiquitous to all cultures. We are surrounded by stories in the form of myths, folktales, fairy tales, media, news, entertainment and literature. They form the master narratives that guide our actions and embed us in our society. Students are equipped with an understanding of how narratives function, developing narrative arcs, recognising story patterns and using this knowledge, if required, to create alternative narratives. Simultaneously, the students work on exercises to understand their own narrative identity and identify the key moments/events important to their life stories.

Module II - How to Use Stories Strategically: This module takes a more conventional approach. It demonstrates how leaders have leveraged storytelling to manage meaning-making processes. It uses real-life examples to unpack the ways in which stories are used to enact changes and persuade, inspire and motivate employees. Through in-class exercises, students uncover tropes that make storytelling impactful and also learn how to use voice and vivid language to create an emotional connect. Most importantly, they recognise how leaders across diverse backgrounds, with varying personalities, narrate stories authentically by employing techniques that suit their own communication style.

Module II - Storytelling in Practice: The final module is more like a workshop aimed at facilitating students as they put their knowledge to practical use. Here, students identify relevant stories to create their personal story bank. They learn how to weave stories into their communication across different contexts, including corporate presentations, interviews, ceremonial speeches and persuasive conversations. At the end of this module, students can craft their own story with a clear purpose, meant for a specific set of audiences. Peer feedback is used to polish their stories and enhance the overall delivery and content. The course's final week ends with an individual-level coaching session to help the students hone their skill sets and leverage their strengths.

About The Author

Prof. Vaibhavi Kulkarni

Prof. Vaibhavi Kulkarni

Vaibhavi Kulkarni (vaibhavik@iima.ac.in) is an Assistant Professor in the Communications area.