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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Jeff Murray on Storytelling: Advice for MBA Students

Jeff Murray
November 24, 2021

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Dr. Jeff Murray has been a professor in the Department of Marketing at the Sam M. Walton College of Business since 1989. After completing an undergraduate and master’s degree in sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, Murray decided to pursue his doctorate in sociology at Virginia Tech University. Unfortunately, the university eliminated the Ph.D. program two years into his studies due to funding. He eventually decided to pivot and received his doctorate in marketing.

Murray became the department chair of the Department of Marketing at University of Arkansas in 2011. He’s taught doctoral seminars and workshops in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, in addition to creating his own podcast, Hidden Signs. He is the recipient of the 2002 Outstanding All-Around Professor Award, along with University of Arkansas’ prestigious Charles and Nadine Baum Faculty Teaching Award. Murray’s research has been featured in major publications, such as the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Management, Journal of Macromarketing, and Journal of Consumer Policy. His work focuses on ethnography or cultures and semiotics or symbols in the context of shopper, buyer and consumer behavior.

One additional area of interest for him is storytelling. While storytelling is an integral part of marketing, its application extends to personal life and business communication.

The Importance of Storytelling

Whether we realize it or not, we are all storytellers and experience stories daily. Thanks to text messages and social media, society writes more now than ever before in human history.

“Our text messages, our tweets, our marketing strategies, our brand identities – these are all stories,” Murray said. These stories, aside from providing entertainment or a method of communication, have significant importance to our personal lives and to business communication.

“Storytelling is important for your own personal brand, telling the story of who you are,” Murray said. Employers want to know who you are as a person and an employee, including your strengths and weaknesses. Storytelling is a helpful and subtle way for them to learn this information from you.

Beyond articulating who you are to others, storytelling also plays a large role in business functions.

“Once you work in a team, nearly everything you do will come down to some kind of story,” he said. For example, when teams work on a project, they may start by collecting data, interpreting it and finding key themes. The last, but crucial, piece of the puzzle is taking those themes and creating a story to tell that would be interesting in a presentation. Storytelling allows people to take important information and present it in meaningful ways, even with the most mundane tasks.

To become a better storyteller, Murray recommends people learn the structure of stories. It’s important to identify the characters, location, cultural context and plot structure. He explains plot structures almost always follow a flow of normal life or conventional wisdom being disrupted, leading to tension that is eventually resolved with a persuasive argument. Murray follows this model when conducting his own research, using it to present his information in a meaningful way.

Additionally, it’s important for people to know how to articulate their own stories, whether that’s in 10 seconds or 10 minutes of conversation.

“Learning that well not only helps you get to know yourself better, but it helps you communicate with employers,” he said, something that is particularly important as students interview for jobs and internships. Additionally, he advises those interested in learning more to read books, such as Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

Advice to MBA Students

Murray encourages students to step out of their comfort zone. “The Ph.D. program getting axed was the best thing that could have ever happened to me in terms of my career because I found something better.” According to him, marketing was just beginning to grow at the time his sociology program was eliminated, opening the door to immense opportunity. He advises that letting some disorganization and chaos happen can be a good thing because it allows for reflection and growth.

“Your story that you’re writing – your narrative – is never going to be a straight line. It’s those moments when you step off the path that you learn the most.” Because of this, his biggest advice is for MBA students to take classes outside of the Walton College, such as art history or anthropology courses. Stepping out of comfort zones and being placed in different situations cultivates reflective, creative minds.

In addition, Murray recommends students read as many books as possible. “Read books that aren’t assigned,” he said. “Have a couple of favorites, rehearse very well how to talk about those books, and bring those up in interviews.” This makes you look like a curious thinker and helps tell the story of who you are.

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Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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