As children, the world of stories was a fascinating one. Our imaginations took us to new lands, introduced us to new characters, and most importantly served as a treasure trove of learnings. Stories have been at the very crux of communication since ancient times. It is a little known fact that while stories have been powerful enough to shape our childhood, they also have the power to shape businesses as well.

Right from motivating team members, communicating ideas, or even cracking business deals, Gabrielle Dolan’s Stories for Work (2017) shows that spinning a great tale is a wonderful tool that can make a business tick.

The Potential Of Storytelling At Work

How can storytelling be relevant to the workplace? 

Firstly, stories add color to communication and make the idea to be communicated more interesting. People are more interested in listening to an emotional story about how a company became successful, rather than a presentation of numbers, facts, and figures.

The power of emotional connection via stories has been used since ancient times. Homer’s Odyssey was originally composed as a verbal poem, to impart cultural values. 

Stories have been used since time-immemorial to impart values, teach cultural importance, and much more. Similarly, they can be used in business in a number of ways.

For example, Australia Post, Australia’s postal service, used effective storytelling to instill its revamped organizational values into its vast workforce. They held a 2-day event called ‘Grapevine’, where employees were asked to share a personal story based on one of the company’s new values. The storytelling event helped the shared values of the company increase by 50 to 70 percent.

Stories Create An Emotional Connect

Stories have an emotional connect and work at a neuroscience level.

Stories trigger an emotional reaction in our brains. The neocortex – the part of the brain that manages cognitive functions – works closely with the emotional functions of the brain. When we hear a story, the two parts connect words with logic and emotion to sensory images, to create a vivid mental image. Additionally, oxytocin – the trust hormone – gets released creating the same sense of security we get when we hug a loved one.

Both these physical responses to stories affect the decision-making process. 

Our brains are wired to make decisions based on emotional appeal rather than purely on the logic that is used to only back up the emotional reasoning. A story connects to the emotional sense, rather than logical reasoning. A study conducted on 1400 marketing campaigns proves this. The results showed that emotion-driven campaigns had an efficacy of 31%, almost double the 16% efficacy of logic-based campaigns.

Stories for Work By Gabrielle Dolan
Stories for Work By Gabrielle Dolan

Understanding The 4 T’s Of Storytelling

There are four categories of stories that can be effectively used for business. 

They are tragedies, triumphs, tension, and transition. To understand how these four types of stories work, we can imagine them as characters in a party. While tragedies and triumphs will be the loud centers of attraction, the tension, and transition will be the quiet conversationalists occupying the corners. Let us look at these in more detail.

  1. Tragedies – Consider the movie Titanic. It is a classic example of how a tragic storyline works. Tragedy can be used very well at the workplace to relate to a number of organizational concepts. For example, the regional HR manager at Australia Post, used the tragedy to highlight the concept of health and safety. He told the story of how he bought his wife a bike that led to her crashing and injuring herself on her first try. He expected her to know how to turn by merely using his verbal instructions. 

He applied this situation to work where we assume that colleagues, knowing the office equipment and work environment will keep themselves safe. However, making assumptions about other’s safety is the first error we tend to make.

  1. Triumphs – Triumph stories focus on celebrations, success, and winning, and do not necessarily include the speaker. These could be stories about other people’s triumphs as well. This helps motivate people and give them a feeling of achievement.

An example of using triumph stories comes from the company Bupa when they were trying to implement their new set of core values amongst the employees. Head of the strategy, John Rizzo narrated a story of his own mother who struggled for five years to successfully fund and create a sensory room for disabled children. He described how his dinnertime conversations changed from rants to stories of success, highlighting the values of passion and selflessness that the company wanted to focus on.

  1. Tension – Tension stories keep the audience on the edge. They focus on friction and conflict – especially amongst personalities, behavior, or values.

A senior product manager at Australia Post, Jonathan Snelling narrated a story of how he learned the value of humility from his son, on a trip to New Zealand. His story puts him in a spot of tension when he struggled for an hour to change a deflated car tire, refusing help from other people. Once back, his son simply asked him why he refused help from people who had good intentions of helping them. He realized that it was his pride that blinded him from accepting help. 

It takes courage to open-up about ones own negative aspects, but it is a story type that inspires.

  1. Transition – Transition stories are about major, and moving transformation in one’s life. They deal with big changes and focus on the emotions felt during the transformation.

Rose McCarthy, an Australian HR Manager, tells a transitional story of how she managed to get a job as a medical receptionist without having any experience. Her move to Ireland with her family was a massive transition in her life. She cited her ability to manage her life even after being uprooted from her old life for the sake of her family as a tale of willpower, determination, and motivation to learn the ropes of a job she had no experience in.

Finding The Right Stories From Within

It is one thing to know different types of stories one can use, and yet another to be able to understand when, how, and most importantly which story to use. However, there are a few key tips that can be employed in finding one’s story.

One can ‘embrace the everyday’, essentially meaning, look for stories in everyday life rather than the big events. A classic example comes from Peter Cook, a Thought Leaders Business School teacher.

He was obsessed with uneven sideburns to the point where he would cut off 2 mm differences. One day, he realized that he himself has never noticed any person’s uneven sideburns. It made him realize that no one ever noticed his. His ‘daily-life’ story highlights the fact that we put too much emphasis on some things, distracting ourselves from other important things. A mere change in perception can move mountains.

Finding a story requires one to sit down and brainstorm. There are two types of stories that one can collect from their own lives.

  1. Work-related stories: To get a number of work-related stories, draw a table of 5 rows and columns for the number of jobs one has held. The upper-left box of the table should have ‘Job’ written on it. Fill in the other four empty row boxes with triumph, tragedy, transition, and tension under jobs. Start listing the jobs held on the top row of each column from left to right.

Once you sit to think and write you will find stories that correspond to each of the story-types.

  1. Non-work-related stories: The process for non-work-related stories is similar. The only change would be to write ‘experience’ instead of ‘jobs’, and start relating experiences in life with the story type.

The Three-Step Storytelling Structure

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher introduced the three-step storytelling structure to the world – introduction or beginning, body or middle, and conclusion or end – that is used even today. Let us look at these in detail

  1. Introduction/Beginning – The beginning should be captivating and concise. It should provide context, interest the listener, and most importantly, avoid unnecessary facts and information. The time and place of a story should be included in the introduction to enable listeners to transport themselves there.
  1. Body/Middle – The body or middle of the story is called the heart of the story and contains the most detail. Information given in this part should be relevant to the story and devoid of superfluous information or unnecessary facts and figures that will disturb the emotional connection the story has. It is essential to name characters in a story for people to build empathy and trust.
  1. Conclusion/End – The conclusion should always be tight and impactful that comprises of a bridge, link, and pause. 
  1. The bridge acts as a reset button, bringing the listener’s attention to the main topic. Sentences starting with ‘I’m sharing this with you because…’ help in bridging a story.
  2. The link connects the story with the purpose and intent of sharing it. Sentences such as ‘Here we can see that…’ or ‘imagine what we can achieve from…’ are great linkers.
  3. A pause creates a silence that allows the audience to reflect on the story they have just heard. He pauses let’s the information sink in causing impact.

Content Is Key

Content is perhaps the most critical component of storytelling. There are certain rules to ensure that the content of the story is authentic and powerful. The content must be succinct. Too much of verbosity can ruin the effect of a story. Most business stories should be only 1 to 2 minutes long. The following are some additional principles that the content should follow.

Vulnerability is a great device to embrace during storytelling. It prevents the promotion of self-importance and encourages emotional connection. Vulnerability is best used with triumph stories and is very effective.

Another effective tool is humor that should be used, albeit with caution. Humour is often used to add flair and character to a story, however; it is like a double-edged sword that can backfire, especially if used in the context of racism, sexism, and at times political humor.

The final rule of storytelling is practice. While it’s a no-brainer, practice and dedication help in truly making the story yours and instill confidence, get a rhythm, and discover inconsistencies in flow. One method is to write them exactly as they would be said, and practice, practice, practice!

When And Where to Tell A Story?

Having a treasure trove of stories is great, but how does one judge when and where to tell a story?

Just like every story is different, so is the situation, juncture, and opportunity to tell it. A story can be an introduction to a talk or a presentation that helps the audience engage and build rapport. A well-crafted narrative will get them to the edge of their seats early on. A story at the end of a talk or a presentation leaves the audience with an impact and leaves them with something to think about. 

A story is a great business communication tool. It can be used to nail a sales deal, instil company values, or even represent a personal brand.

An effective example is using the informal grapevine to instill company values. Though the grapevine – a hidden network of stories passed between employees – is traditionally negative, it can be influenced by positive stories reflecting the values of the company.

Flexibility And Variety

Storytelling isn’t just about keeping an arsenal of four to five stories and re-visiting them at every opportunity. One has to have a variety of stories to tell, differently detailed versions of the same story that fit the situation and emphasize a different aspect of the same story. Moreover, it is essential to keep refreshing the story box.

The stories reserved for business should also have flexibility. Essentially, the stories should be flexible enough that they can be pivoted into any medium and context; for example, an oral story should be flexible enough to be converted into a written blog.

In Conclusion

In the world of business, where facts and figures, numbers and lists, statistics and charts rule the roost, stories are like a refreshing burst to connect with people, make successful sales and deals, motivate and inspire team members to perform, and most importantly convey personal and company values.