Unlocking the power of storytelling: Bringing clarity to a growing field
Thought Leadership

Unlocking the power of storytelling: Bringing clarity to a growing field

The world of accounting has seen rapid expansion in advisory services over the past decade, with Client Advisory Services (CAS) emerging as one of the fastest-growing areas in the field. However, despite this growth, many clients and internal teams remain unsure about what CAS is and how it can help them. This creates a significant challenge for accounting firms seeking to incorporate CAS into their service mix, as they struggle to explain its potential to prospective clients, internal leaders, and teams.

I was asked recently what my blocker was to faster growth when I was leading a CAS practice and put simply, it was partners in other areas of the firm not understanding or embracing the potential of CAS to benefit their clients. In turn, clients did not fully understanding how advisory services could benefit their businesses. After reflecting on the blocker, I began asking myself what I would do differently today here is my surprising answer: Become a storyteller.

As accountants, we are accustomed to dealing with data, numbers, and deadlines, which often fail to engage or excite our clients. By embracing the power of storytelling, we can communicate the value of CAS in a way that is clear, memorable, and impactful. By telling stories that highlight our problem-solving skills and our ability to help businesses achieve their goals (for clients), or our vision and path to impact (for internal stakeholders), we can bring clarity to our work and help others understand the impact we can have. 

Bold Move International is a consulting firm co-founded by Janiece and Ross Robinson who advise leaders and teams on effective communication and growth strategies. I asked Janiece to give us some basics on storytelling to help us better communicate the value of CAS internally and externally. I believe in the power of storytelling so much, Janiece has led my team at Intuit through a detailed exercise, the framework of which is below.

Let's define what we mean by storytelling.

Storytelling is a narrative, true or fiction, designed to amuse or instruct the listener or reader. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. An important element in strong storytelling is tension. This tension is introduced in the beginning, works its way through the middle, and finds its resolution in the end. I like to say, "No tension, no story." Tension, or problem, is what captures the attention of the audience, our reason to read or listen or watch. We want to see how the obstacles change the characters and what decisions they make to navigate the tension.

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By embracing the power of storytelling, we can communicate the value of CAS in a way that is clear, memorable, and impactful.

Storytelling in business is communicating how we solve the world's problems that come into our sphere of influence. We identify the tension of our clients and bring solutions that drive their success. When communicating with our staff and stakeholders, we identify our internal tensions/problems and make decisions to bring company/employee success.

Where would you encourage a professional to start when considering how to change or bring clarity to the narrative communicated about their work?

I would encourage them to start with identifying the problem they solve in the world. Ask yourself—What is it you do to make the world a stronger place? This answer is twofold: what your company does and what you personally do within the company. Start with the basic answer. Then add the value this brings to the world and then to you. This story will also be what you use internally to explain the value you and your team deliver daily. 

How does storytelling bring clarity?

Audiences want credible ethics from the speaker. They listen for a logical structure in the presentation of the message. They are moved through pathos, the appeal to the emotions. Compelling storytelling will include all three—credible ethics, logical structure, and pathos.

Storytelling brings clarity when the speaker listens and knows the needs of the audience. The speaker knows the balance of presenting ethics and logic coupled with pathos. Ethics and logic are substantiated by the data and its meaning. The speaker uses pathos to persuade, assure, or identify with the audience.

Let's use an example. 

XYZ Company feels overwhelmed with the new laws and regulations affecting their finances. They cannot keep up and feel they are losing money. They have a lack of confidence in their standing in the marketplace. As a storyteller, you hear their problem and the emotions connected to it. You mirror their emotions. You present your company's ethics and problem-solving structure. You tell them not only how you will solve their problem (transaction) but also how you will improve (transcendent—more on transaction and transcendent below) their company's life in the marketplace. You may share a story of another like-minded company in which you guided in the same manner. 

This storytelling brings clarity to the XYZ Company and why you are the one to help them.

It can be hard to communicate something you do daily to someone who isn't as familiar with your work. What are some ways we can take ourselves out of our day-to-day to tell a better story about our work? To talk about what we do without sounding too "inside baseball?"

Here are some ideas to help take yourself out of your day-to-day work environment to explain what you do.

  1. Practice one-minute speeches on what you do. Since you do many things, simplify to talk about one thing you do, how you do it, and what value it brings in one minute. Develop many one-minute speeches on what you do.
  2. Write a list of 5 -10 you use that is specific to your industry. Write a simple definition for each so if you find yourself using that word, you can immediately and simply define it.
  3. Tell a child what you do. This helped me when my 7-year-old granddaughter asked me "What is your work?" while riding in the car!
  4. Make the problem you solve in the world relatable and valuable! Let any audience understand the difference you make in the world because they understand the problem you solve.

I'm used to—and feel most comfortable—communicating data points and hoping the numbers are enough. Where do I start if storytelling feels too out of my depth?

Ask yourself these questions—what story does this data tell? What are the numbers saying? Find the tension, who is affected by the problem, and what to do to solve the problem. How will you bring a resolution? Think of the beginning, middle, and end of the data. A story can be short—a few sentences. What is the beginning tension, what do the numbers show us, and what conclusion do we need to work for to change these numbers? It may be helpful to also ask yourself what action you want your listener to take—does your story support that goal? 

Listening can be a big part of learning to tell our story. How do listening and storytelling go hand-in-hand?

We listen to understand the audience's context, situation, and feelings about a subject. We should never assume all clients are alike, all employees have the same issues. Listening allows us to gather the information needed to be addressed. Stories address the concerns shared or identified. By listening, the speaker can mirror back the client's needs.

Stories are like the facets of diamonds. They are layered with complexities. Members of an audience may identify with different parts of the story. One story can reveal many lessons depending on the needs of the listener. The listener wants to be able to see themselves and identify with, some part of the story.

When a speaker listens and understands the audience, he or she can choose which part of the story to emphasize, to elaborate, or to bring attention to with tone and word choice.

Give us an example of communicating in a transactional way versus communicating the same information with good storytelling.

Two terms come to mind: transactional and transcendent:

  • Transactional means conducting business by buying and selling goods and services to the customer or client.
  • Transcendent means how these goods and services improve lives.

I am sitting in a coffee shop meeting with a potential client. They ask, "What can you do to help my staff raise money for our community campaign?" I say, "I will teach them storytelling techniques to connect to your donors." This is transactional. This is the need, and this is the service provided. 

Now let's add pathos—the feeling—to make this transcendent. Here is a scenario: You need to raise 2.2 million for a capital campaign. Yet, your staff feels awkward asking for money. This awkwardness makes them less confident in their skills. I will teach them how to identify the problems of the people you serve for this campaign and the hopelessness daily they feel. Together we will design a simple storytelling template stating the tensions and how you will solve the problems they face and bring dignity to live a purposeful life. We will practice together in a group setting before we leave the training. Your staff will grow deeper in confidence because they have a clear, direct message and ask. When donors hear the message presented by your staff—how they can become an essential part of restoring dignity to someone—they feel their gift has a purpose. They gain the feeling of legacy giving. Your staff has confidence. Your donors have a legacy. Your people served have dignity. Everyone is stronger.

When done well, what does ongoing, continual vision casting look like?

Vision casting is used by leadership for strategic planning of goals or objectives for a company (and incredibly important for CAS leaders advocating within their firms). A vision is generally a story—this is what we want, here are the obstacles to overcome, and this is how we will feel during and after we accomplish the vision.

To do well, the leader should continually listen to the audience. What and how are they feeling? What do they need to be successful? How do they need to be inspired? What are the ways we can keep the vision before them?

As the leader gathers and processes information, he assesses how often communication is needed. What type of communication is needed? Details focus more on ethos/logos of information. Inspiration focuses more on pathos, telling stories to keep the team encouraged, and moving forward. 

Let's move beyond simply communicating financial statements. Schedule time to plan out your practice's story. What is the tension—for clients and internal teams—and how can your team bring resolution?

Storytelling is a skill that can greatly benefit accountants in communicating their work and value to others. By understanding the elements of storytelling, we can craft compelling narratives that resonate with those with whom we are communicating. As we continue to hone our storytelling abilities, we can bring greater clarity to our work and inspire others to see the impact we can make. 

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