Storytelling is about much more than telling a good tale – it can engender strong emotional connections from employees and build engagement. David Robertson explores the secrets to successful storytelling in business.
In this busy, complex and competitive world, capturing attention is tough – and keeping it is even tougher.
Employee engagement resources
Effective storytellers gain that critical edge as they know how to create a strong emotional connection or “mindshare” – in this case from employees.
Stories help to shape our identity and culture; they are the building block of our lives, providing a valuable reference point so that our brain can process information.
In fact, our brains are hard-wired to process thoughts through stories; unless the left side of the brain (facts) and the right side of the brain (creative) connect, we cannot create memory.
People also use stories to make sense of the world and to transport themselves to the land of the possible.
Successful storytellers take this understanding of how we process stories and use the power of narration to access their listeners’ imaginations, emotions, motives, memories, hopes and fears, while expertly positioning their own agenda.
They do not just tell stories but they plan, develop and present them. They profile their audience and understand their context and needs and then develop compelling stories that create a link between their own goals and the listener’s emotional framework. This “mindshare” helps to establish and build commitment.
Developing business stories
Before creating a story, those presenting it need to think about its focus and how it will develop, as this builds confidence in the message and helps to develop an authentic voice.
Using a business focus, such as organisational change, ensures that the story is immediately relevant to the listener.
It also helps to plan, prepare and develop a story that drives a desired outcome – whether that is to increase trust and collaboration, demonstrate the company’s vision and values, or motivate the audience to take action.
Once you are are clear on the business focus, you can select the appropriate story content and story type to engage with the audience and drive outcomes. Of course, to establish a connection and to achieve goals, ensure that the story is relevant for the listener so it triggers thoughts of “you get me and you understand me”.
There are four common story types that are effective in business. Choosing the right one is imperative for sparking the right reaction.
1. Bridging the gap is perfect when you need to demonstrate how a problem was solved. This is achieved by painting a picture in the customer’s mind of the difference between the current state and what could be possible.
Helping customers to visualise possible outcomes creates an emotional connection that can alter beliefs and change mindsets, as can sharing the consequences and payoffs of taking – or not taking – action. By visualising the result of their decision, customers will start to sequence their thinking and structure their decision making.
2. Results and evidence-based stories are great for sceptical or nervous customers. Use vivid results that walk the person through the problem, solution and result. Show that a positive outcome has been achieved before, so it can be reached again.
Reframing the problem in this way encourages customers to consider new options or perspectives and shows what others have done in similar circumstances. It will entice them to check and challenge their own position on the matter, open their eyes to new opportunities and build confidence and credibility in the solution that is being presented.
3. The “hero’s journey” story type is a way to show how the storyteller can help overcome any major obstacles. It is a pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell and it connects with the emotions by using a real-life or theoretical adventure story of how the hero achieved great deeds on behalf of the customers.
4. Finally, an analogy is used to encourage the audience to take a different view to explain a complex or new idea. It does this by showing a similarity between two different things, such as a bird and a plane. It also appeals to the familiar, generating positive emotions and memories.
There is no one right way or single story type that will work for a wide audience. Stories will grow and change over time as the narrator re-tells them, each time refining their story further to make it more effective.
Like coaching and communication, story developing and telling is a life skill. While we use them every day, the key is to use them intentionally and effectively to drive the desired business and personal outcomes.