Storytelling works. It can help you connect with an audience, build trust, gain buy-in and sell more. But while experts agree that storytelling is the most effective way to convey information, it’s getting harder than ever to stand out and be heard.
So what makes a story powerful and how can you better leverage stories in a business environment? It comes down to a powerful combination of science and art. If you can master that combination, you can engage and inspire teams, build better businesses, and move audiences to action.
Research shows that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. As humans, we are hard-wired to share and hear stories. So how exactly do we process these narratives?
It starts with neural coupling. Powerful mirror neurons cause the same parts of the brain to light up in both the storyteller and the listener, ensuring understanding. If the story engages the listener emotionally, dopamine and oxytocin will be released. These brain chemicals are known to increase empathy, generosity, compassion and trust. The sensory and motor cortex is activated, which is responsible for interpreting sensory information and preparing the body for action.
Great stories go beyond facts and figures. They connect authentically with the hearts and minds of listeners to create influence and impact. Regardless of the storyteller, intended audience, or medium, all effective stories contain five fundamental elements.
Structure: The best stories have a beginning, middle and end, each serving a distinct purpose. Simply put, the introduction should hook your audience, the middle should build conflict and interest, and the climax should involve a change or turning point—a success or failure that serves as a learning moment.
A hero: One strong character tends to resonate with listeners more than a group. This is why personal stories are often the most effective to change the hearts and minds of our listeners.
Truth: No story is complete without the illumination of a universal truth. This is where the storyteller goes beyond the plot to uncover what the hero learned, gained or can apply as a result of the experience.
A goal: Powerful stories include a central goal that your hero is trying to achieve. They point listeners to the potential for greatness or triumph.
Struggle: A story without conflict will undoubtedly fall flat. Revealing the hero’s struggle will make him or her a more dynamic character and create an opportunity for true resolution.
Storytelling can be used no matter your role. Whether you are a leader facing massive organizational change or a sales manager working to bring in new opportunities, storytelling is a universal language. Here’s how it may look for you.
Who: A leader in a changing organization
Problem: Confused and distrusting teams that need to align around a new direction
Story: Open with a personal story about how you struggled through a change or obstacle that ultimately paid off. Remember it is OK to be vulnerable. To transition, share an insight from your struggle and how that lesson helped you achieve a positive outcome. Then create connection. Apply the insight to your current organizational change initiative. Paint a picture of what success could look like if you work together towards the new direction. Acknowledge roadblocks that you may face together. When people unite towards a common goal, the change they are facing transforms from an overwhelming obstacle to a challenge they want to overcome.
Great stories use each of the elements above to connect listeners to the storyteller, spark an emotional response, and deliver a message that opens the doors to a new way of thinking. To give your stories even more power, test out a few of these techniques: Speak in the present tense. Incorporate sensory details. Use pauses to provide space for processing between each thought. Role play and speak in the voice of each character. Incorporate emotion and use expressiveness to paint a picture.
Oprah impressively used these techniques in the speech she gave at the 2018 Golden Globes. Notice how she uses a personal narrative to relate to her audience and spark emotion that unites her listeners behind a common goal.
The beauty of storytelling is that you do not need to be a trained speaker or give an award-winning speech to be effective. You can start small by looking for places in your everyday work environment to include more expressive language or “mini-stories.” Use a metaphor when explaining how a new technology works to your untechnical colleague. Compare the risk of not changing a process to a news story when trying to get buy-in from your boss. Tell a client how you have personally benefited from a product or service to bring an enhanced sense of color to its benefits.
Great storytelling isn’t rooted in being the most eloquent speaker or a “natural”—it’s born from authenticity and practice.