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Narrative in business – here’s an example of how storytelling could have changed the effect of one important email.

Let me start with one of the best business quotes I have read recently, from bestselling author James Clear.

The two skills of modern business:
Storytelling and spreadsheets.
Know the numbers. Craft the narrative.

Many business leaders thrive on the numbers. But when it comes to communicating to staff and customers, the narrative needs to take priority. The spreadsheets need a story in order to make sense to the audience, have real meaning and inspire action.

This came through loud and clear in an email from Greg Foran, the CEO of Air New Zealand, after the first Covid-19 outbreak and major lockdown. Foran was clearly on top of the numbers and what the business needed to do to survive. Sadly though, his message was not only lost on the majority of people who read it, it probably caused a fair bit of angst as well.

The email is a good example of communication that presents information without a cohesive narrative to tie it all together in a way that has relevance to their customers. With a few changes, the message could have been delivered effectively, empathetically, and diplomatically.

From numbers to narrative

Here are a few issues with the email, and how it could be improved.

Problem 1: It makes Air New Zealand the hero of the story.

Solution: Change the narrative so that the customer is the hero.

The opening line of the email  states “COVID-19 has taken an enormous toll on our business.” It would better serve the customer by acknowledging the elephant in the room: “We know that many of our customers are unhappy about our refunding decision.” Directly acknowledging the customers’ concerns instead of the business’ concerns puts the customer at front and center of the narrative.

We’ve talked about this before: your customer needs to be the hero of the story. In this case, the villain would be the global coronavirus pandemic, and Air New Zealand the guide to get the customer through the mess left in the wake of the virus.

In short: you see their problem, and you’re going to help them solve it. And that’s how you get their attention.

Problem 2: It’s too long and bogged down in detail.

Solution: Focus on the salient points and deliver with narrative.

Numbers and data won’t make sense to your audience without a narrative to give them meaning. Many leaders have strongly developed skills associated with left brain thinking – the logical, numbers-driven, linear thinking side. To them, the numbers and details are the vital bits of information. But to the everyday customer, those details have no meaning. The customer doesn’t have the frame of reference that the CEO has. Effective leaders need to balance left brain thinking with the empathetic, creative right brain for effective communication.

How best to do this? Through storytelling and narrative. Scientists have analysed how storytelling affects our brains, and it is proven to be an incredibly powerful communication tool.

One of the most successful venture capitalists in the world, Ben Horowitz, says “The story is the strategy.” Wise words to bear in mind when forming your next communication.

Problem 3: It entirely ignores the refunding issue – the primary concern to many customers.

Solution: Explain in plain terms the rationale behind their decision.

Ignoring the problem feeds into the customer’s worry that they will be overlooked and forgotten. The worst case they can imagine rings true, their confidence in the business continues to decline, and the business digs a deeper hole to climb out of.

How could Air New Zealand have done this better? By painting the bigger picture of the impact on the country’s economy, the issue may have been put into perspective for the individuals affected.

Air New Zealand was suddenly grounded when the Covid-19 crisis struck. Thousands of people wanted their tickets refunded immediately. Of course, if they had refunded everyone, odds are they would have no chance to rebuild the business which would be a much greater loss to our economy as a whole, and I’m not advocating for or against their decision. I’m simply saying that if they had framed it appropriately it would evoke more understanding, compassion, and patience in their customers.

Problem 4: The plan reaches too far into the future.

Solution: Break the plan down into short-term steps.

“We are determined to get through the next 800 days, so that by August 2022 we hit the Thrive section of our plan, when we will be a digital company that monetises through aviation and tourism in a very sustainable manner.”

No one can relate to an 800 day plan! They may have an 800 day plan, but what is important to their customer base is what is happening now and in the short-term. The customers’ concerns and how it affects their lives (and the lack of refunds!) takes precedence over what the airline’s hope for the future is. A simple guide to what action they are taking now and their outlined goals for 6 months and 12 months respectively would have a lot more clarity.

What can we learn from this?

To be effective, leaders need to balance their left and right brain skill sets when it comes to communicating. Having a skill for narrative to give a structure to your communications is vastly overlooked by many business leaders, yet it is the most effective way to get your message across with meaning.

Logic leads to conclusions, while emotions lead to action. If you expect people to take action – whether it be to purchase your product or wait patiently for a resolution to a problem – storytelling takes you beyond the numbers and figures into a world that resonates with your customers.

Successful leaders maintain the balance between staying on top of the data and continually crafting the narrative to staff and customers. They turn the spreadsheets into story. It’s a skill that takes practice to master, but it can be done. The results will speak for themselves.

Note: Air New Zealand subsequently released another email addressing the refunds. It would have been better had they done this in Greg Foran’s email.