How to Master The Most Critical Communication Tool
The ancient art of storytelling is especially relevant in today’s world of information overload because stories are more easily remembered than facts and more convincing than data.
When Mark, the SVP of a major media company, broke the news that the company and all employees would need to completely rethink the way they had been doing business, he told this story of rock climber Alex Honnold:
“Climbers had been surmounting challenges on Yosemite rock faces for decades, but most advances were incremental, shaving minutes off a climbing time or tackling slightly bolder rock faces. Alex Honnold took a new approach, combining mastery of fear, exquisite preparation and a willingness to rethink unprecedented challenges as he attempted Half Dome on a free solo climb on September 6, 2008. Carrying only chalk, three granola bars and a pint of water, Alex successfully scaled Half Dome in an incredible 2 hours and 50 minutes. As fellow climber Peter Croft described, “What Alex was then able to do, and I was not, was to think bigger. Instead of tiny increments of size and difficulty, he went for a bold stroke… The biggest breakthroughs in climbing are more mental than physical. But they begin as ideas. The source of Alex’s achievements, I think, is heart — the ability to dream large.”
All eyes were riveted on Mark as he brought the room back to the task at hand: “We, too, are going to have to dream large. We have a mountainous task ahead of us, and I know there are risks, yet I am confident we can scale what lays before us, and I want all of us to do it.”
Why stories matter in business
Today’s managers and leaders are communication warriors armed with many tools: email, text, MS Word, Powerpoint, Prezi, Slack, Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, and a vast array of social media channels. Yet the most powerful communication tool, which also happens to be the oldest, is often overlooked and underutilized. The art of storytelling has been used for thousands of years to inspire, guide, teach, motivate, or persuade others. And today’s best leaders still harness the power of storytelling to advance their agenda, to reach their goals, or in other words: to make s*%! happen.
Effective leaders know that good stories can touch audiences in ways that no finely crafted argument or business case ever can, and they know how to craft a compelling story for almost any occasion. “Great stories happen to those who can tell them,” declared Ira Glass, host of ‘This American Life’.
Storytelling is especially important in today’s digital age, marked by keen competition for attention and information overload. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, elevates storytelling to human sensory status, referring to it as a ‘Sixth Sense’ and makes a strong case that the future belongs to storytellers. We relate, connect, and build bonds through stories. Stories are a way to reach audiences in unique ways while maintaining strong coherence in ever-changing organizational boundaries.
Whereas facts and statistics engage the mind, stories engage our whole being, including our heart and senses. Functional MRIs show that more regions of the brain light up when we listen to stories. Stories that invoke descriptions of movement and motion, for example, invoke our motor cortex; stories that describe smells and tastes cause sensory regions to light up. Stories thus engage our emotions and empathy, which are more important in decision-making than most business people want to admit.
Stories are also memorable. Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone. Let’s look at when stories are an appropriate leadership tool.
What stories you’ll want to tell
We’ve identified ten types of stories that you can tell for maximum impact in business:
Origin Stories: Remind others of your company's purpose by telling the story of your founding. For a deeper dive, read "Harness the Power of Your Origin."
Vision Stories: Inspire employees or customers with your vision of the future.
Sales Pitch Stories: Tell investors a story that makes them want to be part of your journey by investing in your company.
Brand Stories: Tell stories that reinforce your brand's positioning.
Change Management Stories: Motivate a team or organization to agree to a significant change in company direction, approach, or culture.
Content Management Stories: Cut through the clutter of information in today's digital world by sharing content in story form, making the content more compelling and memorable.
Use Case Stories: Develop 'use cases' in story format to capture the fullness of how products and services will be used.
Rounding out the ten are interview stories (to better relate your accomplishments), teaching stories (to reinforce learning), and ice breaker stories (to more effectively network). Let's look at how an easy-to-use format can be the basis of any story you want to tell.
How you create a compelling story
Stories can be boiled down to five elements: Context, Character, Conflict, Action, and Results. Within some context (situation), a character encounters a conflict (an obstacle or challenge), igniting a desire to right the situation. The character then takes actions to confront and overcome the conflict until finally reaching a resolution, resulting in a change in themselves or in the world.
Let’s look at how this formula applies to the story at the beginning of this article. The context is Yosemite, Half Dome, the climbing community and its rich history of advances in climbing techniques. The climber Alex is the main character. He encounters the conflict (the challenge of climbing Half Dome and besting previous climbing times). Through great study, practice and mental preparation, Alex readies himself and then takes action, tackling the mountain, and encountering a variety of obstacles along his journey. Ultimately, through his actions, he breaks the record in dramatic fashion. The result (or key takeaway) is that thinking big — going for bold ideas over incremental ones — leads to breakthroughs.
Five tips for becoming an effective business storyteller
1) Start with your goal in mind: what do you want your listener to feel, believe and do upon hearing your story? You might even visualize the outcome: see your team moved emotionally; see resistance to change melting away; see energy build with a “can do” spirit, maybe even a specific action, whatever your objective might be. Science shows that writing out ideas helps clarify them, so avoid the temptation to head straight to Powerpoint and instead do a little free-writing about your story ideas and goal.
2) Reveal something important through your story, such as core values and priorities. What you reveal affects the power of your communication. Like the Alex Honnold climbing story, Apple’s “Think Different” mantra reveals the company’s core value of challenging the status quo and thinking beyond the accepted paradigm. And don’t be afraid to go deep. Revealing something personal like an authentic moment or professional struggle can build empathy and relatability with your audience and allow them to also be more authentic.
3) Hook your audience and raise the stakes to hold attention. Consider starting at the height of the action. For example, you might open with, “He was on the rock face, hanging by the tips of my fingers, 1,000 feet above the valley floor. No ropes, and no way to turn back.” A great way to gain and hold attention is to make a topic personally relevant and important to each member of the audience. Think about this opener from the first day of business school: “Look around at your peers. More of you will go bankrupt than your counterparts who don’t go to business school!”
4) Tailor the length and language of your story to the audience. For example, if you are telling an origin story in an elevator ride to a networking prospect, you will need to be crisp and brief. You can go into greater detail for a newspaper interview or at an all-hands company meeting.
5) Practice, Practice, Practice! The best stories are not told ad hoc, the best stories are the ones that have been honed over time.
Make a Lasting Impression
When Mark told the story of paradigm-breaker and rock-climber extraordinaire Alex Honnold, he made a lasting impression on his employees. By adding storytelling to your communication toolkit, you too can align and motivate your staff, galvanize customers and partners, and set yourself, your company and products apart. Although storytelling is as old as mankind, it is not always easy. Now is the time to deploy and practice this crucial art!
About the authors:
Larry Ebert and Lutz Braum have been telling stories as public speakers and writers for 15 years. Larry is a successful management consultant and Lutz is a senior marketing executive. We are collaborating on a series of articles about the art and power of storytelling in business.