Everyone loves a great story. Stories help us to connect with others more effectively, whether one-on-one or in a group. This is as true in the business context as anywhere else. But what, precisely, makes for a great story, and how can storytelling benefit us as businesspeople and as leaders?
These are some of the questions addressed by Esther Choy in her new book, Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success. Esther is the founder of Leadership Story Lab, which she began in 2010 to “help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.” With a wealth of examples, strategies, and insights, her book can help anyone become a more effective storyteller.
At InfoWorks, we believe that in our data-driven, fast-paced business world, storytelling is a critical business skill that will become even more important as the future of work unfolds. Compelling storytelling helps leaders to communicate change, to transmit values, to share knowledge, and to inspire teams.
We reached out to Esther Choy to get her thoughts about the importance of storytelling in business.
InfoWorks: Why do you think that storytelling is a key strategic skill for business?
Choy: Every day on the job involves cutting through a thicket of information. The higher you advance in an organization, the more information surrounds you. Storytelling helps because it is not only more attention-grabbing, it’s also more memorable. It helps make the important information stick.
Imagine that you want to convince an audience that your product can save their life. You could show them chart after chart of statistical data to prove that—but if you tell one story about a time when your product did save someone’s life, your audience will be thinking about it long after the presentation has ended. And that story will convince them to act on the value of your product.
InfoWorks: Most people don’t think of themselves as storytellers. Can anyone learn to tell great stories?
Choy: I always say that you don’t have to be a superhero to tell great stories. That’s because there’s a science to the way storytelling works, so there are tried-and-true formulas known to resonate with listeners. Anyone can learn those methods and begin telling compelling stories.
We know from neuroscience that when audiences listen to stories, they begin to feel what the characters feel. When you look at brain imaging, you can actually see this happening as the tellers’ and listeners’ brains begin to show the same patterns of activity.
But… audiences don’t always feel what the characters feel. They have to be pushed into feeling that bond. That’s what neuroscientist Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University has found. He’s discovered that a certain kind of story works best for creating that bond. It’s one where tension ramps up little by little as the hero has to overcome a huge, stressful obstacle. Gradually, this stressful challenge begins to demand the audience’s total attention.
What Zak has just described is the classic three-act plot structure that I explain in Let the Story Do the Work! Here’s what it looks like:
- ACT I: Hook the audience’s attention. Give context so the audience understands your idea, product, or service.
- ACT II: Increase the conflict. The main character should encounter difficulties that bring insights.
- ACT III: Bring all the pieces together. For the ending, you can resolve the conflict, or you can leave your audience thinking about how they can be part of the solution.
InfoWorks: How can leaders leverage the power of stories?
Choy: Leaders should take advantage of the power of storytelling to build more authentic connections, to make audiences feel understood, to make information memorable, and to render the complex understandable.
Stories are uniquely useful when it comes to building authentic connections. Think about the last time someone asked you to “tell me about yourself.” Did you state your job title? Spit out a laundry list of credentials? What if instead of that, we told a well-crafted personal story based on experiences that tend to be universal, so that the listener thinks, “me too!” We would connect with the listener. Not only is this connection the basis of warmer, more human interactions—it’s also strategic. The people you bond with are the people who will be more open to your ideas.
Stories are also useful when it comes to letting your audience know that you “get” them. A few years ago, an entrepreneur named Gregoire came to one of Leadership Story Lab’s workshops to refine his story. We studied his target audience and discovered that the story he was telling them would have been incredibly moving—for a different audience. So, he looked into other aspects of his past and found another focus for his founder’s story. This new story went over very well with his customers because it showed that he knew why they were drawn to his company.
And any story we tell—whether it’s in a networking setting or a founder’s story for customers—is twenty times more likely to stick than facts alone. And our brains also do a much better job processing logic within stories than outside of them, which is why stories are such a good vehicle for rendering complex information understandable.
InfoWorks: In today’s business environment, we have increased data and a need to communicate that data. How can storytelling help?
Choy: Good ideas can go unnoticed if the discoverer can’t communicate the complexity of their data in a way the stakeholders can understand. Remember that your job is not to impress or demonstrate how much work you have done but to communicate your findings in a way that will stick. Also, keep in mind that there are usually five types of audiences, and formulate your story depending on which one you’re presenting to:
- Intelligent outsiders who don’t have the specific terminology, models and specialized knowledge you do—but are nonetheless sharp thinkers and well educated.
- High-level cross functional colleagues who seek more refined understanding, especially knowledge about how your topic could impact their areas.
- Your boss, who has to understand and stand by your work.
- The “head cheese(s),” who need conciseness, and may need to be reminded why you’re presenting on a given topic and which important decision it relates to.
- Fellow experts, who will want to explore the data itself—and so storytelling takes a back seat.
These categories are derived from a brilliant article by Jim Stikeleather in Harvard Business Review.
InfoWorks: Do you see storytelling becoming even more important in the emerging future of work?
Choy: I do. We can expect the trend of automation to continue, and today’s big data will only get bigger and accumulate faster. Machines can perform tasks, but only humans can derive and share the meaning behind those tasks. Storytelling is the way to communicate that meaning. Often this involves communicating data to a decision-maker, so here is how I recommend structuring the data story in three acts as you communicate to one of the audiences mentioned above:
Act I: Set the scene. Give the answers the decision-makers want and tell them why they should care. But also plant a hook involving how you came to this conclusion. By providing your findings first, you raise eyebrows. People want you to “show your work,” just like in math class.
Act II: Show your audience the journey you took to get to the answers. Refuse to data dump, focusing on meaning instead.
- Remind the audience of the context for your project (briefly). What progress did you make? What was the intended outcome?
- Recount the process you used, staying at a high level and conveying the overarching logic, not the nitty-gritty.
- Reframe your findings to show how your research and analysis have allowed you to achieve new insights. Here’s where you show change, which is a significant part of what makes a story satisfying.
Act III: As you close, weave your story back to how everything began—the reason the audience should care about your findings and what they should do next. Spell out what needs to be done now and in the long run. Leave time for questions. Your story is designed to activate your audience’s critical thinking, so questions are sure to come.
Esther Choy is the author of Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success (AMACOM, 2017). She is the president and chief story facilitator of the business communication training and consulting firm Leadership Story Lab.