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What's in a story?

Storytelling, from a balcony in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires. 2005. A bustling San Telmo hostel was teeming with nomads, students and holiday-makers. All jostling for attention, creating new relationships and seeking adventure and varying kinds of fulfilment. The fifth-floor balcony provided the setting for one of the more memorable things I heard during my travels. During an exchange of Inbetweeners-esque one-upmanship over who had read the most life-changing novel, a lone Yorkshire voice entered the fray and exclaimed:

“I don’t read fiction...I hate people lying to me”.

13 years on, it’s a quote that has stuck with me - and not merely for its impeccable comic timing. He continued to inform the room about his distaste for ‘stupid stories’. He was a serious bloke and he didn’t have any time for that nonsense.

A simple power

That quote reflects a widespread snobbery about the word ‘story’ in many businesses. ‘’Story-telling’ is often derided as superfluous; a non-serious endeavour. One left to non-serious people, doing non-serious jobs, crafting non-serious tales that are full of noise and fury, but ultimately signify nothing of substance.

The sentiment is pretty clear. Those who care about crafting a business story are not adding real value to the organisation. A business story is a frivolous luxury rather than a success-driving necessity.

That viewpoint is to deny the awesome power of a story well-told.

At the risk of bludgeoning and poorly paraphrasing Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he details how the power of stories - or fictions, social constructs or imagined realities - has shaped the world as we know it. Money, nations and human rights all exist simply because large numbers of people have shared the same set of stories and chosen to believe them. This in turn has enabled them to collaborate effectively. And these imagined realities are not a lie, simply because an entire group of people believe in it.

In short, Harari goes on to demonstrate that the way humans cooperate can be changed simply by changing the stories we tell.

Facts are facts. Stories are superfluous.

If stories are powerful enough to shape the way we view the world, surely they are the most effective tool to help our businesses thrive? After all, what separates one civil litigation law firm from another? What distinguishes the best digital marketing agencies? What makes one discount supermarket more appealing than the one 50 metres down the road? Probably not their pricing, customer service or even their suite of products.

It’s the stories that we believe about them.

So why are businesses so quick to dismiss their power? Why do we often neglect to craft our company stories in favour of a ‘robust number’, a ‘hard fact’ or an entirely rational, emotionless ‘logical argument’, often obfuscated with jargon?

To jump immediately to facts and logic at the expense of telling a powerful story is to deny the way that the human brain works.

In Dan Coyle’s The Culture Code, he details precisely why:

“The...neurological truth is that stories do not cloak reality but create it, triggering cascades of perception and motivation. The proof is in our brain scans: When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brain light up, translating words and meanings. When we hear a story, however, our brain lights up like Las Vegas, tracing the chains of cause, effect, and meaning."

He concludes with this kicker:

“Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behaviour.”

However, please do not perceive this argument as an attack on facts and logic. On the contrary, they are vital, immovable, components of success.

This argument simply makes the case that facts and logic aren’t the whole picture. Businesses should not neglect the role of storytelling. Leaders who embrace stories actually take the opportunity to embrace the most effective communications vehicle at their disposal.

Stories will serve to entrench facts and logic - two elements that most organisations venerate.

‘When?’ and ‘why?’ are as important as ‘what?’

Why then, do we often scrabble to list a series of facts as though they - in isolation - are the most compelling piece of persuasive communication? Why do we organise meetings which appear designed to suck the human energy out of the room? Why do so many leaders trivialise stories when they are the single most effective way of organising people around a common goal?

Of course, there are thousands of successful businesses who have never paid this kind of thing much attention. Their workforce are directed to behave in a certain way through the standard communication of logical, rational utterances.

However, those desired behaviours are never encoded amongst the workforce because the leaders have never been able to powerfully communicate their vision.

Wouldn’t it be preferable to have a galvanised organisation, united around a rational purpose, but enhanced with a deep, emotional connection to the company? This can be the result of creating a compelling company story.

As Daniel Pink demonstrates in Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, ‘purpose’ is an essential element of intrinsic motivation. Purpose is “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves”.

Stories help cement the company purpose in the minds of its employees. Therefore, those people will likely stay longer, work harder and produce more.

In short, great stories are the most effective way to communicate your distinctiveness. Conversely, neglecting them can cement your irrelevance.

We believe in a good story, well-told.

A strong story can help recruit people who share your vision and embody your values.

A compelling story can provoke envy in your competitors.

An inspiring story can help differentiate you in the minds of your customers.

A clear story can motivate your people to offer more of themselves to your organisation. Not simply because they know what they are doing, but because they know why they are doing it.

And the beauty of it? It’s already there, just waiting to be written.

4and20million help businesses craft their story. We help you communicate it. We support you in bringing it to life. Then we help you tell it - well and often - to ensure that it becomes an exceptionally powerful tool that adds value across all facets of your business.

Making it memorable

Still now, the story of the Yorkshireman who didn’t like stories continues to stick in my head.

He passionately and robustly expressed his viewpoint on that muggy hostel balcony. He advocated the moral superiority of Botham’s autobiography over Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. He made his arguments by being funny, provocative, distinctive and memorable. The room listened, laughed, disagreed, rolled their eyes, countered with their own views then eventually went their separate ways.

Nearly 14 years later it’s a story I still remember.

Ironically, the man who hated stories had a real gift for telling them.


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