Sharing stories is our oldest form of communication. It is also our oldest form of teaching and learning, and of human bonding.
Of course, mankind’s first attempts at storytelling didn’t involve words and sentences at all. As long as 73,000 years ago, they started scrawling pictures of stick men and woolly mammoths on their cave walls in ochre and berry juice. Pictures became hieroglyphics which became letters and then words. Languages evolved, and then technology shaped the forms, format and means of storytelling. However, storytelling never went away, and it is still fundamental to us as a species. We use it to pass on information, beliefs, opinions, thoughts, ideas, and ideals. These are often wrapped up in memorable, fantastical, and emotive packages. Sharing stories helps us to feel a sense of belonging, a part of something larger and greater than we are as individuals.
Physiologically and psychologically, as intelligent and sentient beings, we are programmed to find patterns in, and relationships between, the incredible amounts of data we are faced with and must process every waking minute of our lives. It is this higher level of intelligence that has helped us to climb to the top of the evolutionary ladder. (…and the food chain. Without sharing tales of where to find food, which dinosaurs to hide from and where, which berries made us sick, how to make fire and so on, we would never have made it this far!)
On top of that, storytelling is both enjoyable and contagious. It triggers the release of pleasure hormones and encourages empathy. In 2014, Harvard Business Review published research proving that listening to character-driven stories increases the levels of oxytocin in our blood, leaving us more sympathetic to a cause and more willing to help. Think about how much more likely you are to donate to a charity if you have had your heartstrings tugged by a story focusing on an individual or individuals to whom you can relate in some way.
And yet, many organisations still don’t understand the importance of storytelling when it comes to communicating with their people. Instead of creating engaging narratives that embed their ideology, vision, and values into something memorable, relatable, and engaging, they let these key messages die from the dullest and driest of delivery methods. Or, worse still, they allow them to suffocate under an avalanche of rumours, gossip and half-truths.
We all know that stories can affect our mood and change the way we think and feel. They can even alter our beliefs. We’ve all been affected in these ways by a good book or well written article, a powerful documentary or a favourite movie. Therefore, having a strong business plan and vision statement, and a clear strategy is only half of the… well… story! If your people are not engaged and enwrapped in your vision, if they don’t understand why they are doing the things they do, and why it matters, they are far less likely to behave in the way you want them to. This is why a robust internal comms plan is so fundamental to the success of a business.
With each new generation, it seems, the need to feel a sense of belonging and purpose at work becomes increasingly important. Most workers now want more than to simply clock in, clock out and get paid. A sense of purpose and a belief in an overall cause and ideology are greater motivators than cold, hard cash.
It’s part of the human need to strive for self-direction, to better ourselves, to learn and create, to improve our esteem and, maybe one day, reach self-actualisation. (Funnily enough, I was writing about Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ only a few weeks ago!)
If proof was needed, in 2015, Deloitte surveyed nearly 8,000 millennials and discovered that 60% of them cited “a sense of purpose” as a reason they chose their employer. That proportion rises to over three-quarters for those with high social networking use. Millennials want to work for an organisation with a clear mission. They want to feel that higher sense of purpose towards the work they’re doing and are driven by opportunities to contribute towards a bigger cause. Gen Z are similar.
Beyond simply having interesting projects to work on, this extends to the goals, visions and purpose of the business they’re working for, too. Millennials and Gen Z actively seek out employers whose values match theirs, and they won’t stick around if they are unclear, unshared, or unrealised. And so, telling that story is more important than ever.
The three basic principles of storytelling are these:
Engage your audience – arouse their interest.
Show the challenge – make them care.
Show the change – spark an insight.
Or you can use the five c’s of storytelling as a guide:
Context – give some backstory and an introduction to the story.
Catalyst – share the main event, the game-changer.
Complication – this is the main obstacle, problem, or choices to be made.
Change – the transformative plan or path that overcame the complication.
Consequence – the resolution of all of the above.
If it all seems a bit too Star Wars or Harry Potter, it’s probably because they were constructed using those same storytelling principles, with added emphasis on good versus evil and love interests. But if the hero of your story is your business or your people, the same principles can no doubt be applied to tell those stories in an engaging, impactful and enduring way.
And finally, a few tips for good storytelling:
Have a strong start. Research has shown that the first 90 seconds have the most impact.
Personalise your story to the max. Make it mean something to its audience.
Be authentic and human. Include feelings, hopes and fears.
Use active vocabulary when required: “We need to…”, “Our first step is…” etc.
Build intrigue with questions and stat’s: “Did you know that…?”.
Promote an emotional connection with the audience: “Imagine how it would feel if…”.
Remember that your audience are likely to mirror your energy and passion, so deliver your story with plenty of both. This is where video really excels over the written word!
Of course, the rules and benefits of good storytelling apply to all forms of communication. But they probably map most closely and most easily to that most dynamic and effective method of communicating – video. A video message can offer authenticity, credibility, and engagement that written pieces just cannot deliver, no matter how eloquently penned. Complex messages can be delivered quickly and clearly, with visuals to clarify, and body language and vocal tones to reassure, if that’s what’s required. A three-minute video can also disseminate a lot of information far more effectively, efficiently, and engagingly than a bloated meeting or lengthy e-mail.
So, incorporate some storytelling techniques into your short video messaging for the ultimate double-whammy in effective comms. You will have better informed and more engaged people as a result.