When I was a young boy, I loved listening to stories, and mostly from my grandfather. Like many others, the most special time for me was just before bedtime. The words on their own would conjure up pictures in my mind and transport me to another time and place.
And my favourite tales were from the “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights”, that extraordinary collection of stories first gathered hundreds of years ago. I would listen to the adventures of Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, and, best of all, Sinbad the Sailor. Even today, as I read these stories to my own children, I feel that it is actually me flying on the magic carpet.
Only great stories have the power to captivate and enchant us.
So why is it that so much of the language of business is bad? We talk in jargon about things like KPIs (key performance indicators) and EBITDA. We use clichés like going the extra mile, or giving 110 per cent. We “on-board” people and then, rather than sack them we “right-size”.
We talk about paradigm shifts, low hanging fruit, and thinking outside the box. It’s as if we’re deliberately ignoring everything, we know about how to engage people with stories. It’s not just the words that are wrong. Far too much internal communications is top down. It’s about senior management deciding what they think is important for others to know. They also decide that they know best how and when to communicate.
To make matters worse, too often they forget that the most important part of storytelling is in fact listening.
I’ve had to learn the hard way. Initially my focus was on internal communications in and around the Gulf area. To be honest, the expectations of employees was pretty low and the channels at our disposal were fairly limited.
Over time, I have had to build a global function, covering North and South America, Europe and Australia, and China with different time zones, languages and attitudes. After a few false starts, I think that we now have a function that really does support the business, its culture and behaviours.
So here are five key tips based on my experience of telling stories locally and globally.
Language — Keep it simple and using real words. Sophisticated business jargon may be OK at Harvard Business School. But it’s not how most people communicate. It’s also easy to forget that jargon can lose a lot when translated.
Share, not tell — Top down rarely works. We can learn from social media that people are good at sharing what’s important. Being told what to think reinforces hierarchies and poor behaviours.
Worry less about the medium — A lot of business communicators get hung up on technology, but actually the best communication channels are the simplest ones. In fact, nothing comes close to face-to-face. Build on the old channels rather than simply replace them.
Listen — We have two ears and one mouth and, as the saying goes, we should use them in direct proportion. The best communicators are always the best listeners.
Tell stories — Make your internal communications memorable by conjuring up images and pictures. Always have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and aim to convey real truths.
I do think that we often over-complicate our internal communications. By sticking to these simple rules perhaps we can make our business messages as memorable as our favourite bedtime stories always have been.
Fahad Nackshabandi is Secretary of the Board of Directors at Cristal Global, the world's second-largest producer of titanium, in Saudi Arabia.