Become a Better Storyteller to Be a More Effective Leader
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Atlanta and I was, once again, stuck indoors hunched over my computer crunching numbers to create the financial report my boss would present on Monday morning. A friend invited me for a walk, but I reluctantly declined, spending the day working. Back at the office on Monday, I listened as the guys compared weekend golf stories and then saw my work presented to the leadership team as the sole effort of someone else. The more the guys connected around golf, the more isolated and frustrated I became. Until one day I finally . . .
There’s something about the way a story unfolds (with conflict, important goals, suspense, good guys and bad guys, and with a lot on the line) that grabs our attention, pulls us in and sticks with us in ways that charts, graphs and facts just don’t. Neuroscientists now know that stories tap into the way the human brain functions by engaging its constant striving to detect patterns and by requiring key functions from the left and right hemispheres to engage simultaneously.
Stories engage the left side of our brains where we process cause and effect and store factual memories. At the same time, they call on the right side where we store personal memories and process intuition and imagination. Functional MRI studies have shown that stories activate the rational frontal cortex as well as the emotional limbic region of our midbrain, according to information shared in BrainWorld online magazine.
Our brain experiences stories much the same as real life, immersing us in the same lived experience as the characters in the story, and creating far more complex and robust memories than simple statements of fact. “Since the brain is structured or ‘wired’ to detect patterns, and stories are stored as images and symbols, they not only are recalled more accurately than facts, they are more effective as vehicles to convey information,” BrainWorld reports.
Thoughts and feelings
In the opening to this article did you “see” me stuck indoors on a beautiful, sunny afternoon glued to my laptop? Could you feel my simmering anger and frustration while I listened to colleagues trade weekend golf stories? Did it prompt thoughts of a frustrating time in your own life? Do you want to know what happened next?
Recent studies have found that stories cause us not only to experience physiological reactions similar to those the character is undergoing (increased heart rate, racing pulse, sweating and faster breathing when James Bond is hanging onto a cliff) but that they also cause us to release the neurochemical oxytocin. We release oxytocin because we also care about the characters we are reading about or watching. Stories bring us together.
Spin a yarn, build a business
Although most of us can recall making up stories as young children playing make-believe, or perhaps spinning a tale to regale our own kids, we of course turn to facts and figures in a business environment. Those elements need to be there, of course, but embedding them in a story with a beginning, compelling middle and meaningful call to action will engage far more of your listeners’ (or readers’) brains. Stories literally stimulate more neural activity than straight data, increasing your impact and creating lasting memories.
Telling the story of your business, rather than simply the facts of it, is a key capability for engaging potential customers, investors and employees to drive interest, engagement and connection. As a corporate leader, you also need to share the story of your career and critical projects in high-impact ways.
Knowing how to craft a strong story that others will respond to is a skill that can be learned. That’s why I launched Pitch University several years ago to help entrepreneurs learn to tell their business stories in compelling ways that increase the likelihood of venture capitalist investment, attract more partners and employees, and gain the attention of community stakeholders and customers. It’s also why we followed up with Pitch University Corporate to help people working in companies sell their ideas to colleagues and senior leaders.
Entrepreneur participants in Pitch University learn how to identify and share their unique value proposition, master the components of an effective pitch, conduct mock sessions with fellow classmates and even receive guidance on applying to pitch competitions. Corporate professionals also master the art of the pitch, and learn how to effectively tie their role to company strategy, develop stronger executive presence and increase their influence within a large organization.
Your brand story
Knowing how to tell the story of your brand, business or career helps your audience remember who you are and care about what you do. Just like Harry Potter or The Tale of Two Cities, the most effective business stories feature the drama of adversity, or unmet needs; a hero who shakes up the status quo and finds a better way; and a resolution where you solve the problem and the audience can see that you’ve saved the day.
Unlike Harry Potter, your story will be absolutely true. People will be most intrigued and inspired by how you have faced challenge and persevered to find success in a way that benefits others. Oh, and the ending to the story about seeing other people take credit for my work? I decided to launch my own business and the Monica Motivates, LLC story became my story.