Storytelling as Business Strategy — How & Why it Works

Wendy Kelly
Apr 22, 2015
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It's a crazy sense of power when you harness the story.

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The older woman's tears fell to the floor of the packed schoolhouse. The wooden floorboards, the high ceilings, the packed room full of others who, like her, had recently had surgery to remove cataracts. Seeing these people for the first time, her tears of gratitude fell freely.

Story As Business Strategy

Her smile warmed the screen as I watched her bow down to the image of her Dear Leader, the man she ultimately thanked for her sight.

I felt my eyes well with tears, too, as I watched her friends and family share her joy.

gratitude - as a result of a well-told story

Though her sight had been restored through a joint project between National Geographic and a Nepalese eye doctor named Dr. Sanduk Ruit, in this woman's story, all gratitude belonged to Kim Il Sung.

Whatever your thoughts might be about the Hermit Kingdom and the cult of personality around Kim Il Sung, one thing is for sure: At least for the older generation in North Korea, storytelling works. It is powerful enough to keep entire generations in tow.

And, as the cracks in the plot begin to show, more and more people wonder if the current leader, Kim Jung-Eun, will be able to keep the cult alive for another generation. Doubtful.

We're Hardwired for Story

That we are hardwired for story is proven. We may not bow down to an iconic image of our Dear Leader post surgery, but think about it: the release of oxytocin that happens when we share in a narrative is real, and happens every day, to all of us.

But we want a clear strategy

Recently, on the anniversary of the Chibok kidnappings, I came across this story by Sarah A. Topol called If We Run and They Kill Us So Be It. But We Have To Run Now in Matter. When the kidnappings happened a year ago, I, horrified, shared stories and followed the news. Then I stopped and forgot. I couldn't even remember exactly where the kidnappings had occurred, let alone whether the girls were ever found.

Well, I'm sorry not sorry, but as soon as that story was branded into my psyche, I'm never going to forget those girls' stories and, given a CTA, I'm all in.

In fact, I'm fairly frustrated by the fact that there really isn't a definitive CTA. Certainly this is more a Nigerian issue than a British Columbia issue, and certainly, we have our own missing girls and women to think about, but it reminds me that, on the heels of a great story, you have an audience that is practically begging you for the next steps to take.

Why and How Story Works for a Business Strategy

Better than bullet points, giving your audience a great story works because it engenders empathy, chemically transmitted via oxytocin, that "love hormone" we produce to keep us all connected. It's the one that forges the original bond between mother and child, and it's the one that makes us feel as though we've been there on the cliff with James Bond or fighting with the Jedi in Star Wars. 

In your next presentation, forego the endless bullet points and focus on a story. You'll engage your audience and have a focal point for your strategy to unfold from, a win-win as they say.

clear focus and attention

More effective than Adderall, "story" holds our attention and keeps us focused. Think about it: we daydream about 2,000 times a day. But during an episode of Breaking Bad or Star Trek, that number shoots to zero. So says Johnathon Gottschall in a great article at FastCoCreate called The Science of Storytelling.

Can you even begin to comprehend the power a story can have on a business strategy? Mind you, we're talking a good story. There's a reason Hollywood screenwriters are paid so well. This is not something you can slog together in a few hours after reading a couple of books on the subject.

an addictive business strategy

A modern-day mind meld, good, effective storytelling actually synchronizes the neural networks of listener and storyteller. Good communication actually creates a common conceptual ground between the listener and speaker, according to a study reported in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (July 27, 2010). Wired reporter Brandon Keim explains that the idea of being on the same wavelength is based in fact.

Having your leads in the palm of your hand, sharing your wants and needs and buying into your narrative. Now that's a plan. And that is basically what Coca-Cola has done since they took the cocaine out. (Thanks to Johnathon Gottschall for the reminder about Coca-Cola. I promise I had thought of it as part of this story, but he absolutely nailed it in his prose.The link above will take you to his excellent work.)

Idea infector extraordinaire, "story" basically has the ability bypass all our defenses and change our minds about a subject. As an example of this, think about it: Someone can tell you all day long about the importance of a good diet, but you know you won't listen. Come face-to-face with your newly skinny aunt, and you'll listen with rapt attention to her story of how she lost the weight. And most likely, you'll be closer to changing your habits as well.

Embed Your Story in Good UX

First of all, I agree with Johnathon Gottschall that we as marketers should feel no shame in using the story as a means to an end. As he says, that's pretty much what all good storytellers do. When I teach storytelling, I ask the students to try to make me laugh or cry or to scare me. The empowerment that creates is palpable. It works. It's a crazy sense of power when you harness the story. As Stephen King says so well in On Writing via Derek Sivers blog, "Writing is telepathy: We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room. Except we are together. We're close. We're having a meeting of the minds."

lead your audience through your business strategy

So no guilt. Just perfect your storytelling abilities. And then lead your audience into that story. But don't stop there. As part of a business strategy, you've got to think like Kim Il Sung or Coca-Cola, and give your audience a clear CTA, a clear direction. And make sure that direction is embedded in your design. Work with your designer to make sure that what you want your audience to do is clearly put forward in your media. For more thoughts on this, see Think With Google.

If the author of that story about the girls from Chibok had ended her story with a direct call to action, a way to join a group, a way to donate, a way to move to Nigeria and hunt down those girls in the forest, I would have jumped at the chance. I was completely primed and ready to go.

I'd say that if you invest in really strong storytelling, you owe it to your audience to give them options for what to do next. Join your mailing list, leave a comment. Share. If the story is good and you've got mind meld, your reader is going to want to take action.

comments? Questions?

So, though this isn't what I would call a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, I'd love to ask for comments about your experience with powerful stories. When has story most affected you? What did you do because of it? How will you bring "story" into your own life?

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