What is business storytelling?

For those who work in marketing or communications, storytelling is all around. In a few years it’s become a big buzzword in our trade. But what is it exactly? Now that everyone is presenting themselves as a storyteller, here’s a crash course to catch up.

Raise your hand if you had rather seen an episode of Game of Thrones than have to listen to another so-called pep talk from your CEO. Ok I see a few hands are still down. Maybe it means you don’t like Game of Thrones. Or maybe it means your CEO has embraced storytelling. And gives great, compelling talks.

Boring

Boring man

Heart versus mind

For all the others, here’s the thing: of course an episode of your favorite TV show is better than some corporate speech. Why is that? Well it’s another story of heart versus mind.

Facts speak to your mind
At work, messages usually are a collection of facts and figures, with a logical structure. When you face one of those, your brain activates the language-processing zone.

Stories speak to your heart
When you are reading or hearing a story, your brain will react in a whole other way and simultaneously activate up to seven areas at once. Including the zone that processes images, which works 60,000 times faster than language processing. Other activated zones include those that trigger emotions, or those that command our other senses: touch, hear, taste, and even smell.

Steve Jobs – One more thing

Steve Jobs - apple way

A story has a stronger impact on your audience

So it’s a fact proved by science. A story will actually engage your brain in a deeper way than facts alone. But then you already knew that. When was the last time you burst into tears or laughed out loud when watching a spreadsheet?

But work is not only about facts or figures. A lot happens every day at the office. We spent a whole lot of time there. We laugh and cry, we crave and fear, we have good times and the occasional fail. After all, most of us at work are still humans.

Daenerys – Mother of Dragons

Daenerys

There is space for storytelling in business

Storytelling in business focuses on the human side of work. Basically, it means telling stories instead of just listing facts. Because just as I said earlier, good stories engage better. They also stick longer in your audience’s mind.

Good stories engage your audience
In a story, if you read words such as lavender, your brain will activate the zone of scent. You can actually smell lavender. But good stories won’t only engage your audience physiologically. They will spark interest, they will surprise the audience. They will persuade. A good story will inspire action where facts inspire… well, next to nothing.

Good stories stick longer
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”. The words are by Maya Angelou, a novelist, poet, and civil rights activist. Make your story strong enough so you can move your audience and trigger an emotional response. Chances are they will remember it based on how they felt at this moment.

How to use storytelling in business

There are three different approaches to storytelling in business. First of all, you can simply use the form of a story to present whatever you have to say to your audience. Another approach is telling actual stories or anecdotes to illustrate your speech or make a point. Or you can also use storytelling techniques to trigger the same effect in people as stories do.

Storytelling doesn't always meet expectations

storytelling in Switzerland

Use the form of a story to present your topic
There are different patterns for stories, such as voyage and return, overcoming the monster, the quest, and so on. Sometimes you can use a story to communicate your ideas instead of throwing them over a few PowerPoint slides. But beware, beginning your corporate announcement with “Once upon a time” won’t always do the job!

As a good example, I liked the short movie “Ambition” by the European Space Agency (ESA). They could go with a classical corporate film. You know, one of those that say: “Our values are blah blah and we’re committed to blah blah and we are the best blah blah”. Instead, they showed a beautiful short film. They told the story of two characters speaking about ambition, a corporate value of ESA.

Telling stories or anecdotes to illustrate your point
Most business leaders feel more comfortable with this approach. Indeed, they won’t only tell a story but rather give a speech that includes short stories as examples. Of course, it works best when the story is credible and accurate. Give names to the characters and locate the action in a place your audience knows about.

Using storytelling techniques to trigger story effects
This approach is more subtle as you won’t actually tell stories. Instead, you will use some tricks to have your speech sound like a story. There are basically two tricks: make your audience see (and hear, and touch, and taste, and smell), make your audience feel. When you create images in their mind and when you engage their feeling, your audience’s brain will be tricked into a “story-like” mode and react accordingly – with similar benefits.

Remember the famous “Moonshot” speech by JFK? He starts with  a list of previous achievements. All these trigger strong images into our brains, even if we live more than fifty years later. Imagine how the people who actually were there would feel.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter story

Not a magic spell

I know storytelling sounds great. Right now you’re probably thinking about where you’re going to start using these techniques with your own job. But remember it’s only a tool. It sure has a great potential but it can be used both well or poorly.

Anyway, it won’t solve every problem you’re facing with your communication actions. You’ll have to test stuff so you can learn and adjust. But don’t worry: we’re here to help.

How can Storytelling help you today?

Our team of specialists is always happy to start a conversation with you. We will help you see the potential of storytelling for your business, product or service. Start a live chat conversation by clicking on the live chat bubble on the bottom right of your screen.

Thank you Daniele Catalanotto and Pascal Wicht for our great conversations. They really helped me write this article!