Thirty-five thousand years ago, in a sandy-floored cave illuminated by the flicker of fire light on the tropical island of Indonesia, a human hand reached out of the darkness and began to paint. Animals, murals, everyday objects, still life, but all…stories. Whether in art or oration, stories have been part of the human tapestry since the very beginning.
Researchers have long indicated that we are primed for stories—to tell them, to listen to them, and to learn from them. From parables to political speech, stories capture our attention, stoke our passions, convey lessons, and move us to action. More recently, neuroscientists have confirmed what we long knew, that stories excite brain regions involved in emotion, engagement, and memory, in both the storyteller and the listener! Stories are the epitome of effective communication.
But here’s the twist…
Despite our human penchant for and long tradition of storytelling, we have largely deserted the practice in our business communications.
From academia to the boardroom, and from conference calls to customer meetings, we have abandoned storytelling for bulleted lists of decontextualized information.
A traditional account of a business could be presented as follows:
Owns 68.2% of the market;
Has 5-star customer service;
Leads the industry in on-time product delivery;
Has double digit EBITDA gains year-over-year.
But in the end, few, if any, of the facts will be remembered. And if your audience can’t remember, they can’t care; your communication was a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, you could introduce the ethos of your business by telling a vivid story about the time your sales rep jump-started the car of a competitor after an industry conference in Des Moines in December; how your Chief Innovation Officer, Sandra, hosted a collaborative hackathon with product engineers and clients to find creative solutions to industry challenges; or how Brian, a customer support specialist, drove to a client’s office after work to resolve an issue and ended up staying until the deliverable was out-the-door.
While not as data heavy and detailed as the bulleted list, stories create vivid and emotional mental-images that your audience will actually remember. And when they remember you and your stories, you’ve successfully built a connection; you’ve communicated.
So what goes into a story? To begin with, stories need to be relevant to the idea you are conveying and relatable to your audience. Beyond those general criteria, all good stories have four components—more or less. They have a setting (people, place, and time). They have a challenge or problem that builds to a climax. They have an action or response. And they have an outcome (for uplifting stories, this is the happily ever after moment). That’s it. And once these ingredients are on your radar, storytelling goes from the marvelously abstract to the very doable.
So the next time you’re faced with a communication moment, channel the passion of the 40,000 year old cave painter, collect your facts and figures, gather the four ingredients, and tell a story.
 Brown, D.E. Human Universals (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1991)
 Stephens, G.J., Silbert L.J., Hasson, U. Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2010, Aug 10; 107(32): 14425-30