Storytelling for success

Conventional wisdom, as well as personal preference, tells us that storytelling "humanizes" theory. It can also be valuable in communicating strategic issues, such as what an organization needs to do to increase its competitive advantage.

Written by Emerald Works
Published 11 August 2016
Storytelling for success

A story - along with its close cousin, the role-play - enables people to examine and explore issues without feeling that they are in any real danger. It allows them to begin with a situation, view it objectively, and then relate their conclusions to their own circumstances.

In other words, L&D could be simpler, more engaging and effective, and our work lives more rewarding, if we restored the emotional power of storytelling.

Anthony Tasgal, the author of "The Storytelling Book," advocates restoring the lost art of storytelling. He believes that, in an age that's data rich but insight poor, the time has come to write less and think more. He argues that we need to change how we communicate in our day-to-day lives and that we'll likely be more effective and productive if we return to our inherent role as storytellers.

Tasgal spoke at the U.K.'s Chartered Institute of Marketing's Small Business Marketing Conference recently. He told his audience, "Today, we tend to confuse input with output. What you do - input - isn't as important as your output, which is meeting what your customers want and need.

"These days, we're so intent on creating a great deal of content that we create 'attention spam.' However, storytelling flies underneath attention spam's radar.

"Nowadays, there's too much attention given to, and importance placed on, measuring everything. People -- especially those in the business world - want to 'prove' things, numbing us with numbers, whereas stories 'move' us, through emotion.

"It's not what you say but how your customers feel that matters, because humans aren't rational information processors. All humans buy because of emotion and, according to research by Paul Ekman, there are only six basic emotions - anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

"Surprise gets through to people. Merely telling people things doesn't work but appealing to their emotions and, thereby, surprising them gets through to them, and they 'get' the message.

"So we should create meaning, not content. We need to find an emotional - rather than a rational - angle for our appeals to potential customers. The most effective way is through stories because stories make us care."

When it comes to telling stories, Tasgal advocates a six-step process to guarantee success. A story should be "SIMPLE:"

  • Strictly structured - with "origins," a conflict, which results in a quest, which results in a transformation.
  • Insightfully inspiring.
  • Measurably meaningful.
  • (having a) Persuasive point of view.
  • Language-led.
  • Emotionally empathetic.

"Use your story to create characters," Tasgal advised. "Character and personality are more memorable than content."

Stories can illustrate an issue and/or stimulate discussion. They can help their hearers to imagine a future state of affairs and determine how this can be achieved - or prevented.

Using stories to help people to gain a clear vision of what success looks like can help them to think about what they need to do to achieve it. The key is to think about the future, and to work backwards to decide how to reach it successfully.

Nick Hindley, Associate Director at global research organization PPD, says, "People won't change if they aren't emotionally engaged. Learning is change - so an emotional connection is critical.

"I use many personal stories when training line management - mostly about how I messed up. These stories usually convey what, in my view, is the most important thing about managing people: to manage people effectively, you have to be a good human being first.

"In many L&D areas, I use stories from sources including the Harvard Business Review to help people understand technical management tools, such as the balanced scorecard. I get lots of positive feedback from managers, who tell me that my stories help them understand the areas we're dealing with.

"Probably the most exciting area of storytelling I use is the creation of futures by teams via rich pictures, or soft systems analysis, developed by Professor Richard Whipp. This technique asks teams to create pictures of their current and future situations, before describing the journey or how they made the transformation, which means they are creating their own stories. It's been, and remains, the most powerful tool to engender engagement with change.

"Before Richard died, in 2005, I'd been fortunate to work with him over two years. He was ahead of the game and much of the change work I do is successful because of his view of soft systems - the people in the process."

Nigel Hopkins, chairman of the board of trustees of the Instructus Group, says, "In all their formal and informal L&D activities, our organizations find that the need for stories is vital.

"Stories are extremely valuable because they help people relate to what they're trying to learn. These can be similies - helping learners imagine a scenario in another way - or they can reveal meaning from past experiences.

"We see this value particularly in helping people to cope with change. Stories help these people remember, and refer to, a successful job change or promotion - and stories can be used to remind learners how an organization coped with change. Their point is that change has happened successfully in the past, it can happen successfully now, and so it shouldn't scare those involved."


About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

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