These three storytelling myths could be limiting your business’ potential.
I was recently at an industry conference in the US where a number of the presentations were based on storytelling. It was disappointing that most of them positioned business storytelling as applying theatrical skills when speaking, providing advice like “don’t say you were sad, be sad” and “unleash your inner thespian”. Other speakers talked about the beneficial effects of storytelling without actually telling any stories.
This confusion is both disappointing and unnecessary.
Telling stories at work
Every human is a natural storyteller, we just don’t do it very well at work.
One reason for this is because storytelling has been conditioned out of us by the time we leave school, but it’s not a practice exclusively for school children. Some of our greatest thinkers understood the effectiveness of conveying a message through a compelling story.
One of the all-time best selling books is a collection of stories: the bible. Readers or listeners of the Bible are able to remember its lessons and pass them on as they’re packaged in parables.
These same tools are useful and useable in business. Yet there are three beliefs which I think are severely limiting professionals today in their ability to use this tool.
Busting three storytelling myths
- Myth #1: Storytelling is an innate ability (a superpower)
We regularly hear people dismiss storytelling because they believe there are only a handful of lucky wordsmiths and raconteurs gifted with the natural gift of the gab. This thinking is misguided. And research confirms why. In 1996 Robin Dunbar, published a paper titled Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language indicating that in informal situations, humans spend as much as 65 per cent of the time talking about ‘who did what to whom’. In other words, telling stories.
So the challenge is not to become a storyteller, the challenge is simply to apply it in the work environment where things are a little more formal.
I recently worked with a group of researchers working in the field of convergent nano-bio science. At the start of the session I could not understand most of the explanations of their research. By applying some simple narrative approaches and structures, within a few hours they were able to explain their research clearly and impactfully.
One of the group members recently presented his research at a conference using these techniques and received the award for ‘best presentation’ as selected by the audience. He won this award despite having presented in English, which is very much his second language. This demonstrates that the use of story in a business context is accessible to all.
- Myth #2 – Storytelling is only good for building rapport, by using our personal stories
This belief is definitely true, but it’s also very limiting. We view the use of story as a means to build rapport and connection, but that’s simply the tip of the business storytelling iceberg. While research from the University of Wisconsin found the activity of storytelling had an impact on the participants’ interpersonal relationships, empathy and sense of connectedness, it does so much more than that.
“Stories should be viewed as facts, wrapped in context, delivered with emotion.”
A story is a powerful tool and, if you know how to use it, it can tackle many different business problems. You can use a story to change minds; communicate strategies, decisions, ideas, value and changes; or use it to just make a point extra clear.
I was in New York recently, running a program with a group of senior vice-presidents from a global technology company. One of the group members said he was very busy and he felt he didn’t have time to use storytelling to communicate his messages. He said he just needed to direct people to do what he wanted. I shared with him an example I’d read recently:
‘A manager of a fast-food outlet noticed one of her new staff was standing idly, cloth in hand, during a busy period. Her normal approach would be simply to tell him to clean tables, but she realised there was high staff turnover, so maybe she needed to change. So she tried something different.
She walked over to him and said: “Do you remember the mother and daughter at table five a few minutes ago?”
“Yes”, he answered.
“How old do you think the daughter was?” she asked.
“About five, I guess.”
“Yes, that’s what I think as well. I don’t know if you noticed what happened when the mother went to the bathroom. The little girl got up on her chair and started licking the table. It’s so important we keep the tables clean.” The manager then walked off. She looked back and the young man was energetically cleaning tables.
I pointed out to the executive that the story approach might take a few seconds longer, but it has far more impact. Part of this is because stories convey emotion. As Canadian neurologist Donald Calne says, “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.”
- Myth #3 – Storytelling isn’t business-like
Again, this view is very limiting. Stories should be viewed as facts, wrapped in context, delivered with emotion. It’s simply putting a more appealing ‘wrapping’ around our messages.
Just as with the parables in the Bible, stories give the listener a better chance of memorising the key elements and being able to retell that story. One of the most difficult challenges in business is to get all employees pulling in the same direction.
Internal stories can give a listener an impression of what life is like at a company, or a sense of the character of the senior team. This is why it’s important to craft both strategic and personal stories that can be conveyed for employees who work away from the office.
“Those that control the stories, control society,” wrote Plato. It’s just as true in business. Humans are not rational machines, we’re emotional beings who want to connect with others. Stories allow us to do just that.
Mark Schenk is the Managing Director of Anecdote.
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