I've been stalked by storytelling this year. If you work in business or communications, chances are you have, too. In a work environment defined by information overload, people are constantly being told to share their stories to cut through the noise.
Of course, storytelling never really went away. Since the dawn of humanity, people have used it to make sense of a complex world. But for years the preferred method of communication in the corporate world has been to draw on data and well-reasoned arguments.
The problem is that doesn't actually work very well, at least not compared to weaving narratives that put the facts in a compelling context. "People's beliefs can be swayed more effectively by storytelling than through logical arguments," writes Esther K. Choy, author of the new book Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success (Amacom, 2017).
Unfortunately, for people who have been trained to focus solely on facts when doing their jobs—cue "Jaws" theme music here—sharing stories can be scary.
Choy is here to help. The founder and president of the consulting firm Leadership Story Lab describes how leaders can use this formidable mode of communication to meet their business goals, whether to sell a product, brand themselves on LinkedIn or craft a corporate culture.
As it turns out, the same things that can make storytelling seem daunting, such as describing personal challenges or admitting mistakes, are also what make it so powerful, because people relate to these very human experiences.
"We tend to like those whom we perceive as being like us, and we are more likely to say yes to them," Choy writes, citing 35 years of research on social influence. "How do we make people perceive us as being like them? By telling stories that accentuate our similarities in a strategic, authentic way."
Anatomy of a Story
Stories generally include a protagonist who embarks on a journey, navigates challenges and realizes a change. They should integrate a call to action and reveal something genuine about the teller that others can relate to, eliciting an emotional reaction. The basic three-act structure—most often described in the context of screenwriting—includes:
- The hook. A good hook grabs your attention by setting up a conflict, contradiction or contrast. In "Jaws," it's when a shark kills a young woman who goes swimming at dusk in a New England beach town—creating a conflict between the shark and the sheriff in charge of investigating the death.
- Challenge and change. To conquer this beast, the sheriff must deal with a money-hungry mayor reluctant to close the beaches, a look-alike fish and a final epic battle on a sinking ship.
- The resolution. This describes what's different at the conclusion and how the protagonist changes. Sheriff Brody becomes a hero; things don't work out well for the shark.
If this seems far removed from "real" life, realize that the formula is the backbone of all stories from time immemorial, including the ones leaders tell to inspire employees, funders and customers.
For example, when addressing potential investors, the founder of Airbnb often shares his story of starting the company. He and his roommate couldn't pay their rent, so they decided to create a website to make their apartment available to others on weekends (the hook). As they sought to expand, they struggled to monetize the fledgling business and deal with a few rogue guests who trashed host apartments (challenge and change).
In navigating those obstacles, they realized they could generate revenue by charging a transaction fee for the monetary exchange between hosts and renters, and they rolled out insurance to protect people's property. As they look to make the process even safer and more efficient, they hope investors will grasp why funding Airbnb is a great way to grow the thriving sharing economy (resolution with call to action).
Building Storytelling Skills
Choy gives the following advice to those who want to hone their storytelling skills.
Practice empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of those you hope to persuade. The story of the three little pigs might sound different if told from the perspective of a wolf with a big, bad cold, Choy suggests. After accidentally sneezing on a few shoddily constructed houses, why wouldn't the wolf devour the perfectly good bacon left behind as collateral damage? (A strong case could be made for the great white in "Jaws," too, if you think about it. Whose turf is the ocean, anyway?)
Know when to prove and when to persuade. Proving is about using data and analyses to support your conclusions. Researchers seek to prove hypotheses in scientific studies. But good stories often use persuasion. That involves crafting strategic messages and drawing on selective facts to arouse emotion, which plays a key role in decision-making. You can do this by emphasizing words more than numbers and highlighting the meaning of the information you present. Answer the "so what" question.
Listen to others' stories. This not only helps you become a better storyteller, it is one of the best ways to engage people—which is critical in business and HR. "When we acknowledge others, we are also making them feel valued," Choy writes. You can evoke others' stories by asking them leading questions and paying attention to their answers: Why did you do that? How did you get started? What does that mean to you?
Check out Choy's book for many more stories, tips and boilerplate scripts you can use. Then prepare yourself—because once you transfix people with one good tale, they'll no doubt want more. Just when you thought it was safe.
Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.