Say it with a story

I love stories. I like reading them and listening to them and watching them. I also love telling them and helping other people tell them. Stories are so powerful because they go straight for the heart. In the business setting, where it’s much more common to go for the head, the story can be all the more powerful.

In the words of my very wise colleague, Everett, “there’s a reason it’s called a feel-good story and not a read-good story.”

Stories elicit a physiological response. This simple fact did not surprise me given the number of PG&E Olympic commercials I have cried during. But, the extent to which storytelling influences sentiment and incites action does.

Study #1- Empathy Towards Strangers

The 2009 study, Empathy Towards Strangers, neuroeconomist Paul Zak had his subjects watch two videos. One video portrays a classic dramatic arc in which a father trying to connect to his dying son while the other video portrays a flat account of the same father and son spending a day at the zoo. The video with the dramatic arc caused an increase in cortisol and oxytocin, colloquially known as the stress and love hormones, respectively. These hormones are associated with focus, memory, trust, and care.

Zak took the research one step further by investigating whether that physiological response and that experience of empathy affected generosity towards strangers. In the second phase of the experiment, subjects were given money for participating and presented with the option to anonymously donate the money to charity. Those who produced the highest levels of cortisol and oxytocin were significantly more likely to donate.

Study #2What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Super?

In this study from 2014, Keith Quesenbery and Michael Coolsen conducted a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials with the goal of understanding what drives high ratings in consumer favorability. They investigated potential drivers like sexual content or cute animals. It turned out that commercials with storyline structures and dramatic plotlines outperformed those without story lines. And, the relationship was linear. The more story elements, the higher the rating! The research also had predictive value. Quesenbery and Coolsen were able to predict ratings based on how well it followed a five-act dramatic story structure.

In the work setting, I’ve found that storytelling can be particularly helpful when you want to:

  • Make something to more memorable
    • Try: a case study with a customer to convey the functionality of a product
  • Build empathy with others
    • Try: explaining the founding story of your company in a sales pitch
  • Bring something to life in a new way
    • Try: creating a project brief that shows the state of the world before and then after the project is undertaken
  • Change minds and behaviors when traditional rhetoric isn’t cutting it
    • Try: pausing the salary negotiation and explaining why you love your company in sell conversations with candidates
  • Explain something that seems esoteric
    • Try: using narrative elements when pitching a new project idea to your manager

I like to use ‘The 5 C’s’ of storytelling to bring narrative to unexpected places at work:

  • Character- who is living in the world?
  • Circumstance- what is the world like?
  • Curiosity- what is the character’s ideal circumstance?
  • Conflict- where is the gap between the current circumstance and ideal world?
  • Change- how does the world or character transform?

Give it a whirl! And, get in touch with questions or updates on how it goes.

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