The Power of Storytelling in Business

By Joan Dowling
As you’ve all probably noticed, the use of stories and storytelling is emerging as a powerful communications tool and becoming integral to how communicators define their content marketing approach. While we’ve all seen or experienced the use of a dramatic story in a television commercial or customer testimonial, many businesses are finding that stories offer a new and relevant way to connect with audiences in other forums beyond advertising. Businesses now use storytelling in presentations, meetings and as a way to present research or motivate employees.

I recently spoke with Jane Praeger about the power of storytelling. Jane is a faculty member in Columbia University’s M.S. programs in Strategic Communications and Communications Practice where she teaches strategic storytelling. Jane is also the principal at Ovid Inc., a communications firm that coaches people for speeches, presentations and media interviews.

As she explains, social media have pushed communicators towards being “more authentic and transparent and personal.” Storytelling is part of this shift: at its core a great story engages the emotions recreating an experience for the audience.

Personalization for Persuasion

Stories become a stand-in for an actual personal experience, which builds empathy in the audience. “Well-crafted stories bring issues and concepts down to earth,” says Jane, “so that people can literally see and feel them.”

Storytelling also has the added benefit of what Praeger calls “lifting the skeptical veil.” In business, particularly when speaking to clients or customers, stories allow the audience to see the world through the eyes of the presenter. “As people in audience begin to empathize with the characters in the story, their tendency to be defensive and counter argue, begins to recede,” explains Jane. “That’s why storytelling is a great tool for getting people on board with a new idea.”

Inspiring Your Audience

Researchers have found that most decision-making, including in business, is driven by our emotions. Stories offer a powerful way to engage those emotions, and thereby inspire decision-making.” Jane notes that we “like to believe we are logical, but in fact we use data and facts to post-rationalize the decisions our emotions have already driven us to make.”

Almost any presentation or form of marketing can be transformed into a story.  As an example, rather taking clients through why a particular business is better than its competitor with lots of revenue data and such, imagine telling a story about the business itself and who it benefits, about the way a product or service can make life better in the future, or about particular challenges and defining moments (there’s where you can insert the first big revenue point) that ultimately punctuate the brand values, the people and the culture.

The same can be said of presenting a new product or campaign. By taking a client through the team’s journey to the “big idea” or product, by sharing the set-backs, wrong turns and successes along the way, a presenter can be far more inspiring and persuasive than by showing a series of heavily bulleted slides and superlatives describing the product. The audience can identify with the presenter’s struggles and see why certain ideas or choices were discarded en route to the ultimate idea or final product.

Make it Memorable

Stories create “stickiness.” With all the competing information and media channels, communicators are challenged to find ways to connect and be more memorable with their audiences. Stories do just that. Retention of information increases as the audience is drawn into the narrative. Jane advises her students and clients to root their story in a specific time and place and set the context by answering the “5Ws” at the outset — who, what, where, why and when. The story must also include an event that “upsets the apple cart” and changes the way the main character or characters see the world and therefore behave.

Still not convinced? Think back to the last meeting or presentation you attended – were you inspired? Was it memorable? Or were you checking your email?

Finally consider some of the most inspiring and memorable presenters of our time. Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” — a lecture initially to be delivered to an audience of 400 — went on to inspire millions and teach many valuable lessons. Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford has been seen by millions. Both used storytelling to capture their audience; years later they are still inspiring people to “stay hungry, stay foolish” and “pursue their childhood dreams.”


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