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What we can learn from bankers about storytelling

In October 2019, Ana Botín, the  President of Santander Bank, spoke at the Santander International Banking Conference about trust. 

Bankers love talking about trust. No surprises here – the 2008 financial crisis seriously damaged their institutional reputation, and since 2011 trust has steadily become one of the most important factors in customer decisions on where to bank.

When financial global masters of the world such as Ana Botín talk about trust you might find yourself rolling your eyes.

Not this time! Because she’s learned about storytelling. She set up the frame of her speech like a pro.

One of the most important things to do when you tell a story is to create the frame.  As Doug Lipman says, the frame is the answer to the question “What’s going on here?” He gives the example of a person going to the doctor, who asks: “How is your heart?” If his best friend asks the same question the answer will be totally different. 

To tell a successful story, you and the audience need to agree on what’s happening and what sort of stories can be told. Framing sets the tone, the content, and the type of story that can be told.

In a way framing can be used to define the problem and the solutions, and to control the conversation. It’s powerful. And it can be used maliciously.

With the wrong frame, you get the wrong conversations, as you quickly learn as a parent.

Me: Who has been drawing in the toyroom and left all the crayons and paper on the floor?

Kid 1: Not me – it was him.

Kid 2: You’re such a liar.

Kid 1: I’m not a liar, you stole a car from my secret box too. I saw it in your room yesterday!

Kid 2: I told you not to come into my room!

And so on and so on.

The right frame:

The toyroom is messy. Guys, if you want to watch TV you’d better tidy up. I don’t care who did it. If there’s no arguing and no complaints and you tidy up in the next 15 minutes, you can have 15 extra minutes of TV.

Wrong frame. Wrong conversation. Right frame, right conversation.

Leaders create the right frame first and the right stories and conversations follow. That’s all.

What Ana Botin did at the beginning of her statement was framing. She framed the problem of banking under the topic of trust. She could have referred to unethical behavior, better customer service, or greed, but she chose trust to frame her story because she knows that financial institutions’ growth is dictated by peoples’ level of trust. And she knows that other bankers are worried about the same problem. It’s a conversation everybody wants to have.

She structured her speech into three areas: doing good business, doing business well, and her commitment as a leader – that is, her values, which are personal, fair and simple.

Only then, when the frame is well-established and we know what we’re talking about, does she tell the story of Elsa from Santiago Tianguistenco, Mexico and José from Chile.

Stay with me, because this is what she says at the end of her speech:

But facts alone – whether targets, investment, or tax contributions – cannot win an argument, especially in the emotionally charged public debate we find ourselves in today. We need to keep telling our story. Today I told you about Elsa in Mexico and Jose in Chile. You will recall those stories. It is our responsibility to make sure these stories can take place. And then we have to tell them.”

Yes, you heard well. The most powerful woman in global banking said that facts alone cannot win an argument, and that we need to tell our story and make sure that these stories happen for our customers.

And if you’re already thinking you can’t believe your eyes, in the last part of her intervention she talked about her personal commitment to climate change and feminism.

So let me say this one more time: framing is key, your decision about the narrative is key. Stories without the right frame fall flat.

Ana Botin is talking to bankers, to governments, to financial and economic establishments, and to you and me. That’s a big audience. She needs a frame that we all fit into.

When Ana Botin uses Elsa and Jose’s stories she’s getting closer to us, letting us know that she understands and cares, but these examples are also powerful because they reinforce her narrative – we’re here to regain trust and to make sure that we’re helping you, too.

She commands and owns the narrative. She decides where we need to look next and what conversations we’re going to have (don’t ask about the redistribution of wealth or ethical banking for example).

And that’s where many of us fail. We don’t own our story: we tell stories about examples, case studies and good practice, but we don’t work on our frame, the very thing that has to come first, before the storytelling.

Leaders work hard at framing their narratives so they can influence behaviour. KLM talks about flying responsibly, Santander about regaining trust. They own their stories. Their stories are everywhere: in their strategy, in the way they speak and in the conversations that matter and count in their businesses.

We have three choices when it comes to framing: 

Do you want to lead and influence? Set up the frame to influence conversations, solutions, ideas, results – you name it.

Do you want to influence and join forces with what’s been said and done already? Follow other people’s frames. Choose the most popular, successful, creative, innovative, etc., and follow the flow.

You don’t like the story that’s being told? Challenge the frame. No apologies. Break it down and tear it apart.

Bankers loves framing, and innovators and disruptors love unframing. Great stories are crafted by both sides.

But if there’s something we can learn from the de facto financial powers it’s that we need to spend more time thinking about how we frame our storytelling than about the actual stories that we’re going to tell.

The first question you need to ask yourself before telling your story is “What’s going on here?”



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