Catching people talking on their bluetooth while alone in their car enthrals me. These people gesticulate wildly as they chat away to whoever is on the end of the line. Sometimes they frown. And yell. It’s nice when they laugh. It’s not as nice when they pick their nose.
These people are in the grip of story. They forget that stare bears like me are gawking in at them through their car windows. They have been swept away in to the story they are telling to the person on the other end of the phone.
Here are seven reasons storytelling is not only powerful, but has the power to be a force for good.
1. Stories change the world – oh yes, they do
It’s not overstating things to say storytelling changes things.
Before there was a printing press, the story of Jesus Christ – and even Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad – ignited people to believe, join groups, worship and behave in prescribed ways. Most importantly, people spread these stories through oral storytelling
Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire using the power of Homer’s Iliad to paint the vision of the society he wanted to create.
How many children would listen to parents warning them not to wander too far into the forest if we didn’t have Red Riding Hood and the story of the big bad wolf?
As author Neil Gaiman wrote in his novel Coraline, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” And there lies the power of story: it paints the picture of what’s possible, what we can achieve together and how we can make the world a better place.
2. Storytelling must capture the imagination
Stories cannot be mere information; they must capture the scarcest resource we have: people’s attention.
Inspiration, engagement and being enthralled are key ingredients to making this happen.
That’s why people in cars pull faces to the person they are talking to on the telephone, even though the other person can’t see them.
Our rational self takes leave when we are in the grip of a story – who hasn’t spent an entire weekend bingeing on Netflix after being sucked in to a rich and entertaining narrative that leaves you gagging to know more?
Beverly Kate and Betsy Jacobsen wrote in True Tales and Tall Tales: The Power of Organizational Storytelling that there are three key sequences to story:
- THE STORY: Someone tells it. People listen.
- THE UNDERSTANDING: The people who hear the story, and the teller, understand something that was known to them only superficially before.
- THE SHARED MEANING: Groups use their shared understanding of one thing as a metaphor or shorthand that gives a wider understanding of other things.
You cannot expect audiences to understand the shared meaning without engaging and delighting them first. Capturing their attention and sweeping them into the story is everything.
3. Storytelling imparts knowledge
All stories are narratives, but not all narratives are good at explaining things, persuading people or calling people to take action.
Yet persuasion and conveying knowledge are two key benefits of good storytelling.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle always professed that there are three parts – or modes – of persuasion:
- Pathos: persuading through emotion and stories
- Logos: appealing to reason through clear language, facts and data
- Ethos: establishing the character, credibility – and potentially the vulnerability – of the speaker.
Stories can be useful for communicating complex knowledge but you’ll never persuade people to do anything if you don’t also give them the logic, pathos and emotion behind it.
4. Stories are your best employee engagement tool
Workplace and organisational storytelling is undoubtedly complex.
Big ‘ta-da’ announcements of a new acquisition or strategic goals can fall flat but creating a culture of strong, purposeful – and also vulnerable – storytelling can turbo boost engagement around those results.
The value of a constructive culture of storytelling in a business includes:
Shared values: The retelling of stories and how people behave towards each other engenders a shared sense of purpose and alignment. Stories tend to be about the irregularities in our lives – the things that are different from expectations – but these irregularities are precisely what make us similar to the people around us.
Trust and commitment: Author Patrick Lencioni, who wrote The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says leaders who tell the story of their personal vulnerability and fear can create renewed commitment and belief in a team’s work.
Knowledge-sharing: Stories can be the tiny fuse that unlocks understanding in the mind of listeners. Manageable and absorbable tidbits about processes and ‘the why’ behind procedures and rituals help people from different teams or departments bond and know they are ‘in it together’.
5. Our brains cannot resist stories
Good storytelling hooks people’s brains to stay tuned and see the climax and resolution happen.
Gustav Freytag – who studied Shakespeare and Ancient Greek plays – believed there were five key parts to engaging people in dramatic stories:
- Exposition: This is the context and start of a story that anchors it for the audience.
- Rising action: Complications and conflict begin to escalate.
- Climax: This doesn’t always happen in the middle of the story, but is the turning point or moment of truth from which the audience can’t go back.
- Falling action: There may be a more struggle, and potentially a moment where the audience is unsure of the outcome.
- Denouement: this is a French word which means untie, but it effectively means the resolution of the story.
Alt text: Freytag’s Pyramid
Image Description: Chart showing exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement
Neuroscience has proven that our brains are hardwired to be transported into stories, so we can feel the release and exaltation of the climax and resolution.
The stress hormone cortisol makes us pay attention, but our human need to connect with others transports us into the story until we see how everything turns out. Our brains are craving the calming and happy oxytocin rush after the adrenaline-inducing cortisol. Then, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a little dopamine.
Attention and anxiety transport us into the story, but connecting as part of the audience – or to the characters in the story – is key to giving us the feelgood kick at the end.
6. Show, don’t tell
Some of the best advertising, communications and marketing uses great storytelling. And some doesn’t.
Steve Jobs – whose business leadership has become a myth unto itself – famously cared about design and messaging.
When Apple invented the iPod in 2001, they didn’t tell you about how the music files were stored or what technology features enabled the tunes to play through your earphones. They told you the story of the iPod: “1000 songs in your pocket.”
That’s all you needed to know to decide whether you would buy one of these new fangled things music listening devices.
Almost as powerful as Ernest Hemingway’s favourite short story:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Not all stories are succinct or easy to create. But it’s nice when they work.
7. Storytelling has an important place in business
Some business leaders are happy to leave storytelling and communication to ‘somebody else’, preferring to focus on more important things like strategy.
But Harvard business professor John Kotter – an expert in leadership and change management – says, “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people.”
Eric Beaudan, the author of Creative Execution: What Great Leaders Do To Unleash Bold Thinking and Innovation, puts it even more bluntly, saying most executives don’t understand the importance of fostering creativity, particularly in how to execute strategy.
“Inevitably an organisation’s success hinges not on the strength of its strategy but on its leaders’ ability to craft a realistic view of how the strategy will be implemented, and to empower their people to get engaged in its execution in a meaningful way,” Beaudan writes.
Surely storytelling is one of the best tools to drive trust and belief in our leaders?