By Stuart R. Levine
Published In, Forbes
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many PowerPoint slides is a compelling story worth? Storytelling makes business come to life. Our brains are organized to respond to them and to retain them. Stories help us empathize with others. They make us feel a part of something larger than ourselves. Cognitive psychology describes how stories trigger emotional responses that drive memory and motivation. Charge a memory with emotion and it sticks. Neuro-imaging reveals that the brain does not distinguish between hearing a story and experiencing something in real life. Both activate the same region of the brain.
For all of time, stories have conveyed human experience. However, storytelling is a skill that must be learned, and many executives struggle to communicate well. Business people are trained to use intellectual processes and to build cases through facts and statistics. We use PowerPoint slides to describe our challenges, report data, and communicate strategies to succeed. This is all great, as your team needs facts and data that they can trust, but reason alone is not the strongest psychological driver. People are more highly motivated by emotion. Augmenting, or even replacing PowerPoint slides, with a story can engage audiences at a higher level. When done well, a story will stimulate the audience’s energy and desire to act.
The need to motivate is true for all leaders, and for the CEO, this is even more crucial. CEOs are the public face of the organization. They navigate their companies through rough economic waters, and coach them through the battle with the competition. They must inspire and persuade their organizations, stakeholders, customers, and more often, the public. A leader’s story should simplify complexity and help the audience make sense of a situation. Understanding the situation is needed for motivation and action.
In today’s world, narratives involving data are more important than ever. Stories that incorporate data and analytics are more credible and relevant than those based only on personal experience or anecdote. Data stories, however, are hard to tell, and data is hard for the audience to remember. Most people tend to quickly forget statistics and even carefully crafted research, but most people do remember stories. Communicating a data oriented message with a compelling story that touches emotion will make the information “sticky”, and more likely to inspire and move people to action.
One of our consultants employs this personal touch when she instructs on medical protocols and systems. Her clients respond to her with focused attention when she describes how her special needs daughter would be affected by their work. The emotion associated with someone’s child navigating the medical system made the statistics and official procedures real and memorable. Her instruction also created a visual image in the minds of the audience that facilitated learning and behavioral change.
It takes a lot of care and awareness to prepare the communication of complex analytical results. Yet stories that integrate analytics into examples and narratives that involve real people are very effective. It is powerful when a company’s leaders, and in particular the CEO, share personal experience, while integrating research and analysis into the narrative. These stories create a visual representation in the listener’s mind. They activate the experiential centers of the brain. Furthermore, when the audience hears them from senior leaders, they are all the more effective in that they build trust through personal examples.
Good storytellers need to know their audiences well, as each audience and each key decision-maker is different. Understanding their emotional drivers emerges both from personal conversations and data sources. You can listen to the stories and experiences of customers, employees, and other stakeholders, and analyze social media and other big data sources. These all can provide vivid insight into what people care about, and good storytellers tap into that passion.
Your audience can sense authenticity. Painting only a positive picture not only loses the audience’s interest, but also probably does not resonate as true. Difficulties and conflict are facts of business life, and dealing with obstacles does ring true. Incorporating details such as names, places and results will help your audience relate and respond when confidentiality permits. Recounting deeply human life experiences, perhaps especially those that involve a struggle against adverse forces, energizes the storyteller and the audience alike. Next time you are with someone who excels at story-telling, listen carefully to what makes it work, and begin to incorporate these new skills into your conversations for greater impact and effectiveness.