The power of storytelling in business
Employing the principles of storytelling can help both businesses and individuals flourish.
As an author and journalist I get paid to tell stories. Storytelling however, is not just the domain of the novelist. We all share stories constantly at home, work and in our own heads. They are a powerful communication tool with the ability to transform.
Hard-wired for storytelling
Our instinct to tell stories is what makes us human. It’s in our DNA. Stories help us to make sense of the world and connect emotionally to it. Scientists have found that when we share them there are measurable changes in our brains.
To understand why this is, it’s helpful to understand the ‘Hero’s Journey’ which Joseph Campbell identified and introduced in 1949 as the archetypal, three-act story template:
1. The protagonist goes on an adventure,
2. wins a victory after a struggle and a crisis,
3. returns home transformed.
So basically, there’s a problem, a struggle and a resolution.
If that structure sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
I use it for writing novels but it’s how we all tell stories consciously or unconsciously, from something as mundane as our ordeal on the motorway this morning, to why we launched our business - more of this in a sec…
Also, if you consider that our brain’s key function is to keep us safe - therefore to identify threats and find solutions to them - you can understand how stories are central to our survival. Novelist and neurologist Robert Burton revealed that when we tell stories, we are rewarded with a shot of the feel-good hormone dopamine. This is because our brains like patterns - and what is a story if it’s not a pattern, with its clear beginning, middle and end?
Storytelling for business
There are myriad ways that storytelling can be hugely beneficial in business. For team-building, client relations and everything in-between.
Telling a story about your brand, service or role helps us and other people to connect emotionally to it and since we are more likely to remember stuff we have an emotional response to, this makes a ‘story’ way more powerful than any elevator pitch.
We can see how we can use engaging stories to convey complex messages effectively in business. The narrative framework makes things personal, relatable and more interesting than simply facts. It can be used for anything from the evolution of an organisation to client testimonials and on a personal level in interviews.
And how to structure these stories we tell in the workplace? By returning to that archetype of the Hero’s Journey…
As a novelist, I’ve read endless books on structure. They all, of course, come back to the Hero’s Journey, but I’ve adapted the language to help me as follows.
The ‘call to adventure’ I call the ‘inciting incident’. Something that changes the status quo so that the protagonist of the story has to act, since if nothing changes, nothing happens and that would be quite a boring tale!
The ‘wins a victory after a struggle and a crisis’ I call ‘rising complications’ building to a crisis. Nothing of value comes easy, after all, there has to be hurdles. These make us empathise with the protagonist more.
The ‘returns home transformed’ I call simply, the ‘resolution’ - slightly different to a solution in that it incorporates a change of behaviour, a lesson learned.
So having examined 'how' we can share stories at work, let's now take a look at some examples of 'when' it can work well to tell them.
Workplace stories about ourselves
In job applications or interviews. For example, the story of how training has helped you develop and do your job better.
Sample story: I used to be focused on ‘winning’ at sales and negotiation, then I engaged with training (that call to adventure!), and now I work much harder (struggle / rising complications) at focusing on building relationships and a partnership approach with my clients. The happy ending? (resolution) I now retain my clients for longer and ultimately see increased sales and profits in the long term…
A story about how you have used experiences to develop yourself for the better.
Sample story: I used to try to be someone else whilst I was at work and it was exhausting and my personal life suffered (which was the inciting incident or call to adventure). Then I challenged myself and my colleagues in the quest for greater authenticity, and now I am true to myself and more successful and engaged with my work as a result.
Workplace stories about organisations
For client testimonials for example, the story of how your organisation has helped previous clients.
This is also a really good way of showing how your organisation understands a client’s challenges - by telling the story of how you helped them surmount obstacles to find the best solution.
A story about what it’s like to work at an organisation, from an employee’s perspective - perhaps in the format of a typical day with typical challenges and the way they - and their team if applicable - resolved those challenges. This helps to create your employee brand, so you attract the people that share your company’s values.
However you choose to use storytelling, it is a hugely powerful tool for communication; capable of eliciting change, conveying complex messages and enabling us to connect and collaborate more deeply.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…