Influence through Storytelling

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ – Maya Angelou

Storytelling is the oldest form of knowledge transfer. First, told human to human and carved as hieroglyphs into stone, then written in early books around 800AD. Storytelling has evolved in its purpose over time triggering different emotional reactions. We learn to tell stories so that we can share experiences and use our stories to present ourselves to the world, and to influence others. And we use stories to influence people. Miri Rodriguez, Microsoft storyteller says: ‘Storytelling is the emotional transfer of information through character, plot and conclusion. “When it’s done right, dopamine fires and it prompts action.” Advertising does this extremely well.

The proof is in the pudding: business storytelling works

How about using storytelling in business? That’s a ‘big yes’ from me, especially now that we work in a hybrid world and our opportunity to connect and influence is narrowed by Zoom screens and the inability to rely on body language. Leaders seem to be sceptical at first when I encourage and teach business storytelling. I was working with a regional leadership team of British Airways and team members were hesitant using personal stories in their presentations. The notion was ‘we are a conservative business, we can’t use storytelling’. However, when their CEO Alex Cruz mentioned his kids and family 3 times throughout a presentation he gave to a large audience in HK a week later, the proof was in the pudding that it works.

The need to influence others is virtually universal – persuade them to buy a service or product, get buy-in to a new idea or lead change, the list goes on. Fact is that we are not able to influence with data alone. We need to use stories to connects to peoples’ hearts and emotions and use data to back us up. An article in Skyword says: ‘Stories and data are better together. One makes an emotional connection, and the other earns trust.’:

What are business stories?

They are personal or business-related stories that make content come to life. Dr. Pamela Rutledge from the Media Psychology Research Centre explains it as ‘Stories are how we explain how things work, how me make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.’

A business story doesn’t have to be a story of business, it can be from any part of your life, but it has to have purpose (why are you telling the story?), it needs to be supported by data and it has to be true. Brene Brown says: ‘Maybe stories are just data with a soul.’ When crafting your story be mindful of the structure:

Paul J. Zak says in this HBR article ‘When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.’

Don’t think of storytelling as tales that naturally come to you while in the middle of the presentation. Your stories need to be crafted, edited, planned and prepared. Once you have a ‘story bank’ you can, of course, repurpose your stories but you need to start with intentionally accumulating business stories.

Here are some tips:

  • Accumulate your stories, create a story bank
  • Write your stories down (paper, Notes or Evernote)
  • Name your stories (memorable)
  • Repurpose your stories
  • Borrow a story (ask for permission)

From craft to tell

I use stories in my coaching practice all the time now. In fact, when I design a workshop and put together the learning elements, I always take time to plan which stories I can use throughout the session to make models and statistics come to life. It’s all about being intentional about using stories, crafting them and enjoying when telling them Here are the steps from crafting to telling: