Before you read on, check yourself with these three questions –
What makes a message easy to understand?
What makes a message memorable?
What makes a message effective at helping you achieve your objectives?
“Storytelling” is the buzzword of the decade for marketers. Brain science plus anecdotal and empirical evidence have demonstrated the power of stories to capture audiences’ imagination, to tap into the deeper psyche where people connect and where decisions get made. (For example, this 2013 article points out that companies that tell great stories enjoy annual revenue growth rates up to 70% higher than stories that do not.)
What’s going on here? How do stories engage a listener in a way that nothing else can? How can you bring the power of stories to your communication for more effective outcomes?
A few years back a cancer research center engaged several presentation and public speaking coaches, including 3C Comms, to work with researchers to teach them how to develop and tell stories. The researchers were the subject of the engagement, but the client was not the research organization – it was the fundraising operation. Why?
Scientists can talk with scientists all day. The language of oncology, chemotherapy, radiation, biopharmaceuticals, genomics, and all the things that take place in the lab is the language of precision, trial and success or failure, and of the specific details of experiments, down to multiple places past the decimal point. To reach an audience of laypeople – professionals, teachers, salespeople, armed forces members, real estate agents, customer service, manufacturing, and social service workers – it takes story to make the researchers’ work truly engaging.
That audience can appreciate a ten or twenty percent increase in some measure in the lab, but they can get emotionally involved, really translate the effect into their own life, when told a story about the mother given the opportunity to see her child’s graduation thanks to an experimental treatment that worked. Or the person who beat cancer before starting the company that made it big. Or the sports star who battled back from a life-threatening illness to take the gold or win the championship.
Stories make the hard-to-understand easier to grasp.
Stories put faces on the facts and the figures. They touch on our common humanity and they break down the barriers that separate us based on knowledge and expertise. You may or may not remember delivery guarantees or inventory details, but the story of a grandpa meeting his granddaughter for the first time will stick with you.
Story gives the audience something to take back to the office with them, or back to home, to share with others.
Stories take hard-to-remember details and abstract them to the outcome they drive.
A high school student, determined to raise money for a deeply-felt cause from classmates during a service week presentation, could have shared the daunting statistics facing children born with cleft palates or other facial irregularities in developing regions. How many thousands of children and families a year? How many countries? How many medical professionals? What investment would be required to fully address the challenge? Those numbers are important, but can they compete with instant notoriety in the sea of noise, long-term recall, and overall relatability of even one story about a parent’s anguish at a baby at risk for malnutrition and misunderstanding, the frustration of an infant unable to latch successfully to receive mother’s milk, or the joy and relief following a successful surgery?
Stories drive emotion in a way that plain facts cannot. They bring more passion and urgency to a call to action.
Why is this the case? Two disciplines provide answers – brain science and anthropology.
Our brains are “wired” for story. It’s been shown with MRIs that the brain “lights up,” making neural connections in two places when presented with a fact, and in seven when engaged with a story. Facts are neutral, somewhat context-free – “they are what they are.” Stories have drama, conflict, action, and emotion, giving the brain plenty to, well, think about. Our ancestors knew this when they shared wisdom – stories about gods and heroes explained the world and its vagaries to new generations, and bards told the tales of far-off lands by describing their physical geography and their people, not with census data and exact mapping.
Can you share your expertise using stories? It’s not that hard – here are two rubrics to use when you construct yours.
Now, next, new – stories, whether told in a sentence or a novel, begin with a current reality, a “now.” Then, something happens to change the reality – a “next.” This stimulus has its effects, and a new status quo emerges – the “new.”
English professors might refer to this as situation-complication-resolution, and it all boils down to the same thing – something changes and the changes ripple to bring about planned as well as unforeseen new realities.
Hero, villain, destination – stories draw some of their power from tension, whether between two characters or a character and an obstacle that must be overcome. Heroes of our stories are actors, that is, they drive the action and they have agency over their own actions. They rise to heights and sing to depths, and in classic storytelling they push through adversity to arrive at a new place (you can see that now/next/new and hero/villain/destination not only co-exist but actually support one another). By persevering through adversity and putting it behind them, heroes get to this new place that can be a physical destination like back to home or someplace they always wanted to get to, or philosophical, like a place of greater knowledge and wisdom, or safety instead of threat.
Next time you want to make sure your information gets understood, remembered, and acted upon, find the story among the facts and tell it well.
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