Storytelling for Impact

By Valeria Mecozzi

One of the strongest ways for humans to bond has always been through storytelling. Listening to each other tell our stories builds empathy, forges trust, and creates deeper connections. It is also a highly effective way to unite emotions with meaning and intention. Science supports this point: listening to a story actives parts in the brain that allow the listener to embody the story and their own ideas and creates neural coupling, where the brain activities sync up and release the feel-good hormone dopamine. Thanks to this, we feel closer to one another and the story becomes easier to remember with greater accuracy.

In tribal history, our ancestors listened to the chief elder’s stories on traditions and culture and to make sense of the world. In the tribal setting of an enterprise, storytelling shares the same goals: to tell stories that bring the company forward and closer together. Storytelling is not sitting around a campfire, or finding those perfect moments when the music starts to swell. Storytelling is serious business. It is the voice of a leader that impacts the audience through a story and toward the future.

A famous study by Jennifer Aaker tested the most effective storytelling methods among a class of students: one in ten made their pitch by weaving a story, while the rest used facts and figures to make their point. When the professor asked the class to write down everything they remembered about each pitch, 5 percent of students cited a statistic, while 63 percent remembered the story. Logic and reason only go so far. Stories, no matter their objective, bring together a loyalty and excitement that forges deeper bonds.

In the scale-up phase, the right story can have game-changing impact and empower your growing team. It’s all about timing – whereas startups begin with little more than their story, and larger enterprises replace stories with processes and silos, scale-ups step up from the initial phase and evolve into a serious company. A powerful repertoire of stories can be wielded to support the company’s founding principles and purpose, can bring the team closer based on shared values, and can tangibly demonstrate how they will contribute to a better future together.

In assembling a story, leaders are often driven by a need to be as explicit and clear as possible and will opt for direct messaging, stating that the future is attractive, or that business needs to work in such and such a way, that the company is founded on the following values. However, audiences don’t appreciate being told what to believe and what to do, will distrust the intent, won’t follow the logic, and will disagree with the conclusions. Storytelling always aims to get a message across, and has a higher return rate by being shared as story instead of delivered directly. This is how storytelling becomes much more effective than simply “because I said so.”

We elaborate on six fundamental elements that every leader needs when crafting a well-told story: audience, storyteller, objective, structure, content, and delivery.

Audience: the audience is the most important piece, and the first to consider before you begin to speak. Who are they? Why are they here together in this space? What do they need, what do you need, and how can these two needs be bridged? How will they relate to this story, and relate it to our value, mission and goals? Storytelling is understanding the audience better than it understands itself.

Storyteller: this is you, standing in front of a group. You have to infuse credibility and trust. Ask yourself, why are you telling the story? What do you bring to it that is unique? What about you needs to be featured in the story to bring the message across? By making these distinctions, you establish yourself as reliable and the right person to be standing in front of your audience.

Objective: having a clear objective brings gravitas to your story. You are asking for time and attention from your audience, so be clear to yourself what you hope to achieve from this investment. What is the meaning and objective of the story? For maximum impact, a clear intention should be determined, after which you can select from your rich arsenal of stories.

There are several objectives to be told in any company story:

  1. Use storytelling in the reasoning process and in convincing others, especially when situations are complex: when you are presenting the company, the founding story, engaging customers and investors, or moving employees to action through an urgent call.
  2. Using storytelling to interpret the past and shape the future: when you want buy-in for the future, better understanding the world in terms of business, economics, organizational dynamics, etc., as well as teaching skills and ways of working.
  3. Use storytelling to resolve conflicts, address issues and face challenges: to better understanding ourselves, our values and the trust we have in each other.

Structure: stories won’t make an impact if they are told haphazardly. A structure will create a narrative sequence that is easy to follow and easy to remember. Many frameworks already exist already in the creative world, and all have a three-part structure of beginning, middle and end. In the first act, the main character and context are introduced; in the second, a challenge is presented, and the hero is tested; in the third, a revelation has come to surface and everything is now different. By working with this skeleton, all stories can be built and embellished for specific objectives.

Content: what makes an unforgettable story? For storytelling for impact, the adage “everything is copy” still holds true. Everything about your story is crucial to making it resonate: involve a cast of characters, who in this case are your customers and audience. Balance big picture and details, and include conversations to add flavor. Engage your listeners through the senses – appeal to their senses and take them on a journey with you. Talk about your failures, and celebrate the message in your mess. But most importantly, tell a truthful story. Be honest and transparent.

Delivery: it’s all in how you tell it. Grip the audience until they can’t tear themselves away until you’ve reached the end. Build tension and suspense toward a climax, and don’t rush through. You can be creative, and stay close to what suits your personality best. Maybe drop the audience right in the middle and into the action. Or start from the end. Use your voice, and your body, as an instrument to forge intimacy and trust. Keep the arc of tension high throughout, and make your point clear as you bring it to a strong end. And as any master will tell you, practice is the key. Practice, practice, practice.

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In ancient times, storytelling was a true profession. Today, thanks to Hollywood and media advertising, storytelling has been further perfected and refined. But it is not as easy as it seems – it takes talent and the proverbial 10,000 hours to become a highly effective storyteller. As a business leader, storytelling must become part of your skillset and repertoire. Engaging in storytelling occasionally is not enough – you are not going to get it right and refined on the first try. The process of solidifying and polishing your story takes trial and error, and time. But the more you try it out, the better you will become.