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31 January 2013

Storytelling: Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Books storytellingFrom prehistoric cave paintings to modern-day blogs, we’ve been telling each other stories for centuries. Carol Luck considers how you can make storytelling relevant in business.

We all remember listening to our favourite bedtime story while snuggled up in a duvet with the light from a table lamp casting shadows across the room. Whether the story was about a princess in a faraway land or pirates sailing the seven seas it was likely to have caught your imagination and left a lasting impression.

For thousands of years, stories have used tales to pass on their values, their culture and their wisdom from generation to generation. But what is it about a story that commands our attention?

The answer lies in the fact that the human brain is hardwired for stories; when we hear or read one we create our own mental images.

American speaker and author Byron Katie summed this up well when she said: “The world is nothing but my perception of it. I see only through myself. I hear only through the filter of my story.”

We use those mental images to put information into context, and then to understand and – importantly – to remember. They bring characters to life inside our heads. That’s why movies based on great books can be so disappointing (The Chronicles of Narnia v The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe… you know what I’m saying).

The simple truth is that storytelling is part of the human genetic code – we start practising from the age of two, and by five we have mastered the art of using stories to manipulate our nearest and dearest.

When it comes to telling a good story, Aristotle cracked it when he said that a story should have a three-part structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a theory that still holds good today (ask any Hollywood screenwriter), whether we’re communicating in print, in person or online.

But first things first… a good story may be the ultimate form of business persuasion, yet without a clear purpose, it won’t connect with or inspire people. So at the outset we need to decide why we want to tell the story and what we want people to think, feel or do when it ends.

It’s useful to think about the needs of the audience and use that knowledge to pitch things at the right level.

Tone of voice is an important consideration too, because what’s being said has to resonate with listeners and readers. Get these things wrong and people will switch off within minutes… hmm, that reminds me, I must buy a pint of milk on the way home this evening.

We shouldn’t try to be too clever either. Unless you’re a natural comedian, use humour sparingly. And if you’re making a presentation, don’t rehearse too much: you don’t want to sound like a robot on the big day.

People don’t want to deal with a faceless organisation. They want to deal with real people. So we shouldn’t be afraid to show some passion – evidenced by the powerful speeches of visionaries like Martin Luther King (“I have a dream…”) and Steve Jobs (“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”).

That said, never overegg the pudding, or your words will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Think of those over-dramatic actors making cringeworthy acceptance speeches at the Oscars (yes, we’re picturing you, Gwyneth Paltrow).

October’s Conservative party conference provided a good example of making an emotional connection with the audience. David Cameron’s speech wasn’t remembered for his sober reflection on the national economy. Instead, what grabbed the headlines was the moment when he shared a deeply touching moment with the audience, his voice cracking with emotion as he talked about life with his disabled son, who died at the age of six.

“I am so grateful for what all those Paralympians did,” he said. “I think today more people would see the boy and not the wheelchair – and that’s because of what happened here this summer.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The bottom line is that good stories can really resonate with people and change their view of the world. Tell a story effectively in a business context and your words will have far greater impact and longevity than you could ever achieve with a spreadsheet or bar chart.

The art of storytelling is part of what makes us human. So put it to good use in business and you’ll live happily ever after…The end.