The Power of Storytelling
-LISA CRON, AUTHOR OF WIRED FOR STORY
Why does it seem so difficult to sit through a 2-hour presentation, but easy to sit through a 2-hour movie? Would you rather read 20 bullet points on how a product can benefit you, or listen to someone who uses the product to share their experience? Stories have a unique ability to keep people entertained, while also passing along valuable information or lessons. Employees are motivated when they hear stories about how their work impacts people’s lives. Science proves leaders can utilize storytelling as a powerful tool to change individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
Studies are ongoing about storytelling’s effects on the brain. So far, we know storytelling helps us gain perspective, increases empathy, and has positive results on our memory. Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that people remember information in the form of a story up to 22 times more than facts alone. When it comes to changing behaviors and attitudes, this is especially important. While data may persuade people, it’s stories that inspire them to act.
Nordstrom is a company that is legendary for its excellent customer service. When new employees are hired at Nordstrom, they are trained in ‘The Nordstrom Way,’ which is to focus solely and exclusively on doing whatever it takes to create a satisfied customer. Nordstrom empowers its frontline employees to have the authority to do whatever is right for the customer, encouraging them to err on the side of doing too much rather than too little. Nordstrom’s policies aren’t just put in a handbook for employees to read, they’re communicated to their employees through stories like these:
- While shopping in a Nordstrom in North Carolina a woman lost the diamond from her wedding ring. A security worker saw her crawling on the floor, asked her what was going on, and joined her in the search. After they were unable to find the diamond, the employee asked two other service workers to help him search. As a last resort they opened up the store’s vacuum cleaners and they were able to find her missing diamond.
- When $200 shoes were left out in the rain by a mail carrier, Nordstrom again stepped up to the plate. Instead of telling the customer they should have filed a complaint with the mail company, the employee took responsibility and asked if she could bring the customer a new pair of shoes within 45 minutes.
Stories can demonstrate how to meet customer needs better than policies and handbooks. Storytelling is a compelling and memorable way to illustrate what right looks like in your organization.
CREATING YOUR STORY
Elements of a Story:
There are several elements necessary to include in any story in order to capture and hold the audience’s attention and achieve the desired outcome.
- Central characters – People will relate to the characters, attaching their emotions to the outcomes in the story. The protagonist is the main character, with a clear goal to accomplish, challenge to overcome, or some sort of lesson to learn/experience to share. The antagonist opposes the protagonist and acts as a barrier between them and their ultimate goal. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a situation or an obstacle.
- Setting – Where does the story take place? This establishes the intended mood for the story and helps to engage the audience.
- Conflict – Conflict is a driving force in storytelling. It creates tension and suspense, making a story more interesting. Without a struggle or adversity, there is rarely a story to tell, let alone, an interesting one that will captivate an audience’s attention. Conflict gets people emotionally engaged in the outcome of the characters and keeps people wondering what will happen next.
- Theme – What is the story really about? This is the underlining meaning behind the story.
- Narrative Arc – Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution – a guide to storytelling structure. This is the most basic framework, although it can vary slightly. There are six basic emotional arcs of storytelling that make up all stories. They are:
- Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune
- Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad; a tragedy
- Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune
- Oedipus – a fall, a rise, then a fall again
- Cinderella – rise, fall, rise
- Man in a hole – fall, rise
Identify characters that are central to your organization such as clients or customers, members of the community, or the founder. Think about the challenges they have overcome or the conflicts they faced. Brainstorm important themes in your organization and discover how they originated. There are most likely plenty of stories hiding behind the scenes within your organization. Think about those characters, conflicts, and themes as you read next about what stories to consider. Using what you already know about your organization, identify one of the story ideas below that you can start developing.
Stories to Consider:
- The organization’s origin story – This is connected to the overall purpose or mission – How did it start? Why this organization? What did you want to accomplish? Why is it so important? How does the organization improve lives? Don’t focus on selling goods and services.
- Stories of excellent service – Paint a picture for how your organization treats its customers, like Nordstrom, harvest and share the stories of employees who show what right looks like. What stories reveal how you want every customer to be treated?
- Stories that provide guidance for daily decision making – What does right look like at your organization? How are people expected to act/behave? How did someone overcome a challenge in your organization? What steps should be taken to make decisions in each area or department? How much ownership or authority do employees have?
- Stories that imagine the future – Leaders often talk about the future of the organization and reference the organization’s strategy or five-year plan. What would that look like if you took it off paper? What does the future look like in action? Often when we think about the future, we are imagining what will happen or telling ourselves a story. When speaking about future strategic
- Stories that connect to purpose – Why do people in your organization come to work each day? What motivates you? What impact of your position is important to you? When others share stories that connect to purpose people see that their work is meaningful and makes a difference.
- Don’t try to make yourself the hero. Make the audience or customer the hero, if possible.
- Use your own experiences. Be vulnerable.
- Be authentic, don’t skip over the struggle. Only focusing on the positive experiences will come off as fake.
- Keep it simple, emotional details are important, but the day of the week probably isn’t. Focus on the details that help you convey the core message.
- Always consider your audience before developing a story.
- Keep a bank of stories for training or onboarding that demonstrate company values, standards, norms, acceptable behaviors, and culture of the organization.