Want to persuade or be remembered? Use story telling

Storytelling has become big business. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of programs running across the country, geared to help teachers, parents, children, and business leaders learn the art of storytelling to communicate better, improve soft skills, and improve memory retention. Zak found that when leaders began their presentation with a compelling, human-scale story, it resulted in a better understanding of key points and better recall of these points weeks later. Other research has found that men who can tell a good story are seen as more attractive and higher status. No wonder everyone is signing up!

Stories also have the power to change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. In his research, Zak found a good story can enhance empathy levels. He found that character-driven stories produce oxytocin — a signal by the brain to trust others. Oxytocin enhances our sense of empathy and willingness to engage in cooperative behaviours. But to do this, a story must sustain attention and involve us emotionally. This enables the audience to share the feelings and behaviours of the characters.

Because employees are motivated by the larger purpose of their organisations (e.g., improving lives) rather than how it goes about achieving its purpose (e.g., selling goods & services) storytelling can be used to effectively communicate the larger purpose to employees. For example, describing the sorry situation of your customer, their pain and frustration, and how their problems were solved by employees’ efforts can be powerfully motivating. The audience will feel the pain as well as joy in its resolution leading to higher levels of organization citizen behaviour.

What makes a great story?

Good stories capture attention and generate an emotional response, and appear to follow a predictable design. Booker discovered seven basic plots after analyzing stories and their psychological meaning over 34 years. These include: Overcoming the Monster — the main character sets out to defeat an antagonistic force, or good seeks to overcome evil (e.g. Star Wars); Rags to Riches — the main character acquires wealth, power, mate before losing it all before gaining it all back while growing as a person (e.g. Jerry McGuire); The Quest — the main character sets out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles along the way (e.g., Lord of the Rings); Voyage and Return — the main character goes to a strange land, overcoming threats and returns with experience (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean) and Rebirth — an event causes the main character to change their ways and become a better person (e.g., How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

Joseph Campbell also uncovered a classic pattern found in many of the above stories. Also known as the ‘Hero’s Journey’:

  1. Departure. The first section is about the separation of the hero from the normal world (e.g., Mowgli returning to the man-village in The Juggle Book) The departure can be led by a ‘Call to Adventure’ a problem/challenge/request that triggers action (e.g., Marlin leaves to find his son Nemo in Finding Nemo)
  2. Initiation. The main part of the story where the true character and hero emerges through daring and battle. (e.g., Mowgli’s battles with Kaa, King Louie and final battle with Shere Khan, the Tiger)
  3. Return. After initiation, the hero returns in triumph with adulation and recognition from those the hero had left behind (e.g., Marlin returning home with Nemo; Mowgli returning to Raksha and the den in triumph)

So if you want to increase empathy and engagement levels in your organization, improve your impact and ability to capture people’s attention through the art of storytelling!