6 tips for business storytelling are detailed at the end of the article but first, let me explain where I am coming from here.
I was talking to a PR person at the weekend about her job hunt and she wanted to include ‘great storytelling’ as one of her key skills.
Now, I totally agree with her: both that storytelling is super important in PR and also that she is very good at it. But I am not sure she should mention it unless her potential employer indicates they think this way too.
Business Storytelling BS
The problem is that there has been a lot of BS about storytelling – fanciful executive courses that have people playing with bean bags and rewriting fairy tales. We all know the sort of thing. The result is there is a lot of scepticism about storytelling as a professional skill.
This and a couple of other conversations with clients set me thinking again about storytelling and how it relates to the communications work we do: media training, presentation training and messaging.
Why Storytelling works
I should say at the outset that I am absolutely one hundred per cent certain that stories work because of the way the human brain is wired. This is almost certainly dictated by evolution. I came to that conclusion many years ago and long before I started reading about the subject.
But don’t take it from me. Here is a serious and beautifully written article in Scientific American. It includes a quote from Professor of Ethical Leadership and Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt…
“the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”.
While Professor Haidt has research and learned tomes to evidence his belief, mine is based on my own observations; that people remember stories much more easily than they remember facts.
And it is not just that people remember: if they hear a story they are more likely to connect.
A simple example that we can all relate to is the difference between walking around a stately home or museum looking at things, compared to walking around looking at things with someone telling you the stories that go with the inanimate objects.
Storytelling and the value of things
But it is also clear to me that stories increase the value of things, literally the monetary value. Pictures, furniture and jewellery where the story is known have a higher value. Here is an article about this on an antiques website.
And another delightful bit of evidence – the Significant Objects Project. You can read the full details here but in summary: In 2009 Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker bought a whole bunch of tat; chipped and tasteless ornaments etc. They then commissioned a bunch of writers to produce a short story about each object and then sold the story and the object together on eBay. In their own words, they sold $128.74 worth of thrift store (charity shop) junk for $3,612.51. This exercise has been repeated several times since and there are books of photos and stories that raise money for charity.
And my final bit of personal evidence is that stories help people fall in love. I have seen it and experienced it myself. The back story of a person or a family can have a profound impact on a potential partner. I am not aware that this has been explored anywhere but it would make a very interesting book.
6 Tips for Business Storytelling
So here are my 6 tips for using stories in business.
First – be clear on your objective. Boring but true. Don’t create great stories that somehow leave a different message than the one you wanted to communicate.
Second, business stories (anecdotes or examples) need to be carefully prepared, almost scripted. They are so powerful it is crazy to wing it and risk throwing away the benefits.
Thirdly – as you describe this story, anecdote or example use tangible language. Create pictures in people’s minds. There is a world of difference between;
The child loved dogs.
George had loved dogs ever since he was 4. His family had visited a distant uncle who kept two black Labradors. George had played with the dogs all day and during the night he crept downstairs to sleep with them in the kitchen – where he was found curled up in the dog bed the following morning.
Fourthly, use emotion – even just a little – and you increase stickiness (the hip word for memorability and engagement). You may be talking about a business problem rather than dogs and children, but briefly describe the frustration, annoyance or fear felt before the denouement and you will make the story more memorable.
Next, if possible craft what is called in the trade a narrative arc that includes conflict or other nasty or bad stuff and has a point of transformation from bad or uncertainty to good. That can be boy kisses girl, missing child is found, accused is acquitted or the tractor part supply line problem is solved! The conflict and subsequent resolution will increase stickiness.
Finally, finish off with a feel-good scene in which the moral of the story or the point of the story is clearly stated. Don’t leave the audience to work it out unless you are absolutely sure they will.
If you can’t deliver the full suite above, at least use some of it: a bit of tangible language, a bit of tension.
Of course, your story may need to be very short if you are using it in a presentation, speech or media interview, and that is another skill.
Just remember the power of story-telling and go practice!