Corporate storytelling: an interview

An interview with Noel Turnbull by Yamini Naidu of One Thousand and One organisational storytelling. For more information visit

Yamini Naidu: What is your definition of business storytelling?
Noel Turnbull: I think it’s narrative and making sense of things. I suppose what a story does in a corporate sense is to construct stories about the culture. I think stories construct a narrative that people can relate to but stories construct people themselves as well – their personalities and their lives are really an on going story and whenever you talk to someone you are constructing part of your personality

YN: Where have you seen business leaders use business storytelling well?
NT: James Strong when he was younger and first at TAA used storytelling very well – he used a story about customer service. The thing that depresses me is that, and this is partly the fault of the public relations industry, there is not a lot of good examples these days of people telling stories, partly because of the way language is debased in its use. Don Argus is good at storytelling and John McFarlane at ANZ told stories and his successor, who seems to be totally different in personality, is telling different sorts of stories about Asia and opportunities. John McFarlane was telling stories about discovering yourself and by discovering yourself you will be better at customer service, while Mike Smith is presenting stories about Australia’s engagement with Asia and creating a different narrative for the bank which conveys the strategy as a story.

YN: What did you mean when you said PR people are responsible?
NT: Don Watson is quite right in what he says about the debasement of language, but there have been a lot of people before him, like George Orwell.  I think what happens is business people, scientists, academics get so hung up the jargon that they set out like to ‘obscure reality’. Whenever a PR person, whether inside or outside a company, sits down to write something on change management or financial results they start digging into that obtuse ugly language, instead of telling the story. I actually think people, when they see or hear that language, can see through it and that it is BS. I don’t think you have to write in a terribly stylish way but you have to have spare simplicity and colour things with anecdotes. As the world gets more complicated we lose our sense of anchoring. Stories help us not only make sense of the world but also teach things – parables are good examples.

Harold Evans of the Sunday Times taught people to do simple headlines with this story. He told of a man who was going to set up a fish shop and tells a friend, “I am going to set up a fish shop and want some advice on the sign I need. I’ve got this terrific idea of a big sign that says ‘Fresh Fish Sold Here’.” The friend said, “Are you sure that is the sign you want? Because you don’t need the word ‘here’, as it is this shop, you don’t need the word ‘fresh’ as you won’t be selling old fish, you don’t have to say ‘sold’, as it is obviously a shop, so all you need on the sign is ‘Fish’.”

When you try to teach someone about writing a compact headline and go through all the stuff they need to know it’s very complicated but when you tell them that simple anecdote, you begin to see how you can communicate something simply.

YN: People get storytelling intellectually, it’s works so why the fear? What is holding business leaders back?
NT: I think a couple of things. Firstly they are frightened of showing a bit of themselves, as when you start telling stories you are inevitably revealing something of yourself and business leaders are taught to be very controlled. Also while a lot of business leaders are very smart they lead quite isolated lives, they travel at the front of the plane, work out of big offices rarely get on trains and trams so don’t experience the sorts of things that ordinary people do. There is a wonderful cartoon from Bruce Petty in the 1960’s that illustrates this. He drew a group of businessmen sitting around in a luxurious club and one of them is smoking a cigar, this is obviously a ’60s type thing. One of them turns to the other and said, “I don’t know how we can waste billons of dollars sending a man to the moon when the entire world is crying out for company tax relief.” If I say CEOs are out of touch and they say how do you know. I tell the anecdote of the cartoon and they get it.

YN: When business leaders use storytelling they want to know what success looks like?  How do I know it worked?
NT: Success looks likes two things – when other people start to repeat the stories and when people smile sincerely. That’s why you tell a story. It’s much better to tell a story then tell a joke. How many business leaders you see begin with a joke that some one writes for them. It’s become axiomatic that you never begin a speech without a joke. The success is do people enjoy listening to the stories, do they keep it going by repeating it? Where I worked many years ago a story was told over and over again where one of the managers at one of the plants was giving a talk to the staff about the bleak outlook and tough times, with advice like work harder and smarter and finished with asking for any questions. One of the staff members said, “I am surprised you said that as the CEO was reported in last week’s Financial Review as saying we are headed for a record profit.” That story stayed in the company as an example of, if you are going to share information, be honest as people have other sources of information.

YN: Some final words of advice for business leaders and what are some pitfalls to avoid?
NT: I think the first thing is to make sure the stories are relevant because if they are not relevant they fall down with a terrible great clang. You need some trusted advisors and trusted counsellors to try them out on. The second thing is to try them at home – your kids and partner are not a bad judge of whether it’s authentic and makes sense. Another thing I think is that people should write their stories down. I know there is a difference between the oral and the written, but writing it down in the simplest way as possible imprints it on the brain better. Most people can’t tell if something makes sense unless it’s on a piece of paper. You need to practise it – it’s a bit like acting. Clive James, in the latest volume of his memoirs talks about the difficulty many people had being spontaneous on his TV show. He remarked on the exception of Joanne Lumly who has always fantastic. As he says: It takes a great actor to be spontaneous.