Man is a storytelling animal. More than an illustrative example or amusing anecdote, stories are both human and universal, cutting across time, geography, and culture. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. Now, with “storytelling” the latest buzzword in business, what does it mean to leverage the five act structure of Shakespeare’s plays or the compelling characterization of John Steinbeck?
Simply put, telling a story engages your listener. And whether you want buy-in from employees, to obtain venture capital funding, or to sell a product, you will have a much easier time achieving your goals if you use narrative. All stories, whether it is a 30-second Super Bowl commercial or the latest novel from Haruki Murakami, have a beginning, middle, and end, and show how a protagonist triumphs over conflict. In business, this can work in several ways:
A good place to begin is the origin story. How did your business come to be? The most interesting creation stories involve an intrepid entrepreneur who, against all odds, starts a business in a garage and ends up as the CEO of an enormously successful company. It’s also easy to remember the famous ones: Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook from his dorm room; Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen literally started their eponymous ice cream shop, Ben & Jerry’s, from an auto repair garage in Burlington, VT. Crafting a story about the beginning of your business is a great way to inspire employees and customers: you met the dragon in the cave and overcame it. It is also a good basis for the establishment of your corporate brand.
Using storytelling in the branding of a company can bestow authenticity: the corporate brand will, in fact, deliver on its promise. Telling stories about your product or company will demonstrate the positives in an organic way.
According to Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: “A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.”
Gather employees in a conference room and share the newest XYZ initiative with a carefully designed Power Point presentation, filled with bullet points and statistics. Pretty soon, eyes will be glazing over or staring out windows. People are immediately skeptical of dry facts and we do not tend to remember them. However, if you are able to articulate the message you wish to convey, you can then create a narrative around that message using personal experience or a hypothetical situation. We are wired for story, and whether the story is true or fictitious matters less than the interesting way you wrap your message.
Stories appeal because they reflect back our own experience. When we listen to someone tell a story, or read their words on a page, we foster the human connection. It is that human connection that builds trust, establishes relationships, and ultimately expresses the goals of a company through that most basic feature that makes us human: a good story.