Storytelling for Organizational Leaders
“The most powerful person in the world is a storyteller.” – Steve Jobs –
Storytelling positively impacts memory. Indeed, it was a tool for storing information long before humans learned to write. Many in the field of historical linguistics theorize that embedding knowledge into stories was, for 10s of thousands of years, the way that knowledge was passed down to subsequent generations in a way that was memorable. In other words, linking numerous ideas, facts, names of objects, etc. could be more efficiently retained in memory if they were linked together by the adhesive medium of a story. But can the principle of storytelling be applied to businesses, both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations? Though the word “storytelling”, to some, might carry an element of frivolity to it, it should be clear that what storytelling is mostly referring to is the story structure. It is a type of DNA found in any good presentation – which includes the problem (or challenge) that a protagonist (or company) is facing – followed by the steps taken to solve that problem. This can also include the missteps along the way in the presentation of the solution that adds some tension along the way.
Research has found that charity organizations that present “the needs they are trying to address with their missions” to potential donors with just facts, statistics, and a basic description of the situation, usually do poorly in raising much-needed finances. However, those that present those facts and statistics in a compelling story, raise significantly more money for their causes. Why? Because stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the connecting thread running through life —not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within the parameters of personal, emotional experience.” An example of this can be found in the wildly successful fund-raising campaign of “Charity Water”, an organization founded by Scott Harrison – whose mission it is to bring clean water to those communities around the world that suffer terribly from the lack of it. The singular tool he uses is his power to make his important appeal through storytelling (many of which can be seen on YouTube).
The power of stories – in the context of business – is best explained by Robert McKee –a respected screenwriting lecturer who is not only an award-winning writer and director but was also a professor at the USC School of Cinema and Television in Los Angeles. He is perhaps the authority on storytelling for for-profit businesses. What follows is an edited and abridged transcript of Robert McKee’s conversation with the Harvard Business Review.
Why should a CEO or a manager pay attention to a screenwriter?
A big part of a manager’s job is to motivate people. To do that you need to engage the emotions – and the key to reaching that emotional level is the story. There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional language – which most managers are trained in. It’s an intellectual process and in the business world, it usually consists of a PowerPoint slide-deck presentation in which you say, “Here is our company (or product /service), and here is what you or we need to do…blah blah blah”. And you build your case by providing many facts, statistics, and usually too much information. Now you may persuade your audience intellectually. But that’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone. A more powerful way is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy. It is not easy. It demands vivid insights into a situation and story-telling skills to create an impact that will be memorable. But if you can tap into your audience’s imagination – they will stand and applaud at the end instead of yawning with boredom.
So what is a story?
Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance. But then there is an event that throws life out of balance. The story goes on to tell how the protagonist, in an effort to restore balance, crashes into uncooperative objective reality. All great storytellers since the beginning of time – from Homer to Shakespeare and up to the present day – have dealt with the fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.
Stories have been implanted in you thousands of times – your mother and father told you stories as a child, you’ve read good books, seen movies, attended plays, and followed a character’s story over numerous episodes on TV. What’s interesting is that human beings naturally want to work through stories. Cognitive psychologies describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story.
Once again, we are cognitively wired to listen to stories. It’s how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points. In the final analysis, stories do the heaving lifting for you when it comes to involving your audience emotionally while making your message memorable to them. It’s more than a leader can hope for.