Guest Articles

November 27

Barbara Börner

Authentic Storytelling Can Boost a Social Enterprise’s Development – This Tool Can Help

Social entrepreneurs are always in pitch mode, and are often very active in promoting their businesses. Naturally, they mostly try to talk about their successes. But like all entrepreneurs working in challenging markets, they face difficult situations as well – and their instinct is often to minimize or ignore these challenges when discussing their work.

However, talking about these challenges does not necessarily make their enterprises seem weaker – in fact, it is quite the opposite. As a consultant for social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations for over 18 years, I have conducted a number of workshops on storytelling in developing countries, hosted by Siemens Stiftung. Like me, the foundation is convinced that narratives – including both challenges and successes – offer a valuable method for raising awareness of a social business in different contexts.

That’s why in 2015, Siemens Stiftung initiated the project “Stories About Us – How to Tell Your Business Narrative” for their empowering people. Networka vibrant global community for social entrepreneurs and development professionals. Together with adelphi, an independent think tank and public policy consultancy, Siemens Stiftung and I have designed workshops and created a hands-on workbook to support social entrepreneurs, business trainers and coaches in developing practical skills as a storyteller. This project provides a basis for self-study and for the application of effective storytelling tools by entrepreneurs and facilitators.


How Sharing Real Scenarios Can Engage Audiences

In our workshops, teams of participants develop each enterprise’s story – often for the very first time. The method enables them to engage their work with a fresh perspective, and through storytelling, they’re able to develop a narrative that matters to their enterprises – from funders and customers to employees and other stakeholders. The tools we provide support these entrepreneurs in identifying and articulating both difficult situations and successes in the stories they tell.

Take, for example, this experience from a typical startup: It undergoes a growth spurt early on, adding new employees who weren’t present during its early stage. These new team members have trouble understanding why the culture of the organization is the way it is. For instance, they struggle with the management style of a supervisor they perceive as overly demanding. In the process of exploring the company’s story, they learn that the manager pushes as hard as she does because ­– more than once in the startup’s early stage – the enterprise’s very existence was on the line.

Telling this kind of story often creates a gateway to the emotions of others, enabling things that had been hidden to surface. The wonderful thing is: These storytelling methods work in the most disparate of cultures and contexts. They don’t require business school know-how or some other special ability – we all grew up with stories, and we’re all shaped by the stories of our own lives. We have everything we need within us.

During a workshop in Uganda, an entrepreneur told his enterprise’s story and talked about the death of his business partner for the first time. He realized he could tell others about it without making his business look weak – and that, indeed, it actually conveyed a sense of the company’s resilience. In another workshop, a consultant from Siemens Stiftung who worked with a ”Safe Water Enterprise,” a small kiosk equipped with mobile water filters, was able to resolve a conflict in a community in Kenya with the help of our “Storyline Graph” tool, an agile development approach to drafting a story through visual prototyping. His role was to assist the process of establishing the kiosk in the community. The small enterprise was running so well that some people from the surrounding community wanted a slice of the pie, as they thought both the board and operators would get rich at the expense of the community – which was not the case. However, this accusation resulted in discord within the community. In the workshop, the consultant helped the kiosk’s board and operators to reflect on the enterprise’s initial days through prototyping the story by means of the “Storyline Graph.” Together, they re-engaged with a pivotal moment from a decade ago, when they had worked together to build the first dam to receive clean water, before the kiosk was installed. In the end, through this story, the entire community was able to feel again the team spirit that originally led to fresh water, which helped them to focus on the true essence of the enterprise and to collaborate to keep the kiosk in continuous operation.

As these examples demonstrate, intensive engagement with an enterprise’s story enables people to see things from a different standpoint, renewing a sense of shared purpose and making communication easier.


Pragmatic, Easy-to-Use Tools for Better Storytelling

One goal of these workshops was to collect relevant scenarios and generate feedback from social entrepreneurs, which we could use to design exercises that offer simple storytelling solutions to common business and communication challenges. We compiled these exercises, tools and solutions into our workbook, which is now available for everyone – both organizations and individuals – to use.

The tools and their backstories are explained step-by-step, allowing users to tailor their stories to different target groups. For instance, the story elements to emphasize while fundraising will be different from the elements one highlights in conversation with a potential customer. The workbook offers tools that can help entrepreneurs effectively plot their stories, adapting the content to dovetail with the diverse roles and backgrounds of their different listeners. Thus, these tools can be used for communication with potential investors, customers and other stakeholders, and also for better communication with staff, and organizational development within an enterprise itself.

In my experience, great storytellers are great communicators – and they often turn out to be great leaders. These skills can be a major asset for entrepreneurs at all levels, and developing them should be a significant priority. If you’re interested in learning more, the workbook can be downloaded here.


Barbara Börner is Executive Director at Börner Consult.

Photos courtesy of the author.




Social Enterprise
business development