By Rama Vani Periasamy

“Humans think in stories, rather than facts, numbers or equations and the simpler story.” 
– Yuval Harari

As the speaker moves through the slides talking facts, numbers and strategies, you are asleep with your eyes wide open or fidgeting with your phone, scrolling through your Facebook feed or thinking about an email to answer once you get back to your desk. And then the speaker finishes. Everyone is quiet with no questions or comments. Sounds very typical.? But how would you incline to the content being discussed if the presenter uses an anecdote or a story. In a typical business setting, a story is considered to coverup something that has been goofed up. Let me bust that myth for you.

So, what is storytelling in business?

Business storytelling is a way to articulate your message, weaving stories and structures in a real business situation, to increase the impact and the ability of the audience to remember. It is different from the stories that are exchanged among friends over the dining table or by the water cooler. These stories need to be based on facts relevant to the business. Storytelling in business is wrapped with data or facts and delivered with emotion. When a story is said, things dramatically change.

Speakers find it a real challenge to inspire and engage the listeners. When jazzy PPTs, graphs and charts fail to do the magic, stories swoop in to save the day. Presentations with data will only hit the language processing unit of the brain where the words are plainly decoded for meanings and nothing happens. When stories are used, the sensory cortex is activated and moves us to take an action. It harnesses the 3 powers of stories – 1. Stories are easier to understand and drive home the message 2. Stories inspire action 3. Stories are easy to spread.

Do you recall an incident or the moment when you look at a photograph? Do you remember where were you when you first heard about a Tsunami hitting the shores of Bay of Bengal? The date or the incident becomes significant. Milestones are created and our brain processes tiny post it notes with details. So, when someone asks you where were you on December 26, 2004, you wouldn’t be making an effort to think. That is the power of stories. Stories stay with us. The human brain releases a hormone called dopamine that influences memory and the information that is processed. It then becomes a part of our memory, which can be recollected anytime and narrated any number of times without any flaw. Therefore, when a message is wrapped with a story rather than facts and data points, it does real magic of inspiring and increasing its memorability.

Business stories can be broadly classified into 4 types. Any story will have a main character or a set of characters, a place, time, sequence of events and a statement of message. These attribute to the classification of the stories.

  1. Connection Story – This one forms a bond with the listeners through an incident narrated by the speaker that was part of his/her life. This speaks about the narrator’s character, values and beliefs
  2. Influence Story – This category plays a role in changing of opinions. First, the listener’s anti-story is discovered, then the narrator presents his/her narrative to make an opposite point of view, brings in a new perspective and gives a call for action. The influencing narrative is not pushed to the listener, but seeds in the other’s views and makes the listener open for alternatives.
  3. Clarity Story – This category has 4 components; context to a past and its results; the change and its impact; new behavioral change; actions for future and the success factors
  4. Success Story – This breaks the monotony of a case study that is infused with data and facts. It speaks about the emotions felt before and after the problem resolution.

A saying goes as “Success is about 99% perspiration and 1% advertising“. Telling people what we have done and how we have accomplished it is as important as the actual act of accomplishment. Business storytelling plays a role in this.

Ritz-Carlton, a chain of luxury hotels in the United States holds meetings to collect “wow” stories of outstanding customer service from its hotel employees thrice a week. Staff members discuss these stories and their impacts, and the top ten stories are collected each year.

Apple retail stores end each day with a discussion on Net Promoter Scores of the employees. The top scorers get applauded and are asked to share detailed stories of what happened in their customer interactions.

The art of storytelling in business is a skill which is applicable to the leaders of an organization or even to a junior level engineer. If you have ever wondered about communicating with an impact, think no further, start your presentation with a relevant story. They enable you to connect, engage and leave a lasting impression. Remember, stories are not an instrument to cover up mistakes.

Here’s an example of how a story can help with visualization.

Imagine the words: river, bicycle, nun, cigarette and noodles. What chances are that you’d remember these words by the time you finish reading this article? But imagine if there’s a story wrapped around these words.

“One day a man was riding his bi-cycle along the banks of a river. As he was riding, he saw a nun smoking cigarette. The nun waved at the man. He stopped in front of her and got down from the bicycle. They sat down by the river and shared the box of noodles the man had in his tiffin box clamped to the cycle.”

This may be a weird and an awful story, but the words have a visual pattern now and it will not be difficult to recollect. The story becomes memorable. So, next time when you are muttering to yourself the shopping list while walking up to the grocer: Bread, eggs, bananas, oil, chillies and mustard, try creating a story around these and recollect easily at the supermarket.

When cataloguing stories becomes a habit, it will be nothing but collecting gold dust. Story banks can be built from one’s own experience, stories heard from others, business books etc. Authenticity of a story is crucial. Exaggeration and fictitious events should be avoided. Omission of critical details that may mislead or even manipulate audiences must also be avoided.

 So, all you data driven people, keep aside the graphs and charts. Deliver your message with an interesting story or an anecdote. Use rhetorical elements such as ‘imagine’ or ‘what if’ scenarios and see a change in the organizational behavior, which is the fulcrum to any business. Start your presentation with “I remember this incident…” and stop. Look around and you’d find the room full of people looking at you, waiting for a story.

This article is based on the book “Stories at Work” by Indranil Chakraborty.