On Monday, I’m giving a talk on storytelling for entrepreneurs at a business school. As I prepare, it occurs to me that people are still not convinced of the value of storytelling as an authentic, natural, and effective mode of communication. This post is going to be a bit more philosophical in nature than you’re used to the Rude Baguette, but I promise to end with a concrete take away.
There’s no doubt that storytelling, in business and elsewhere, is a current trend. Like all trends, it comes with its share of hype and urgency. Before we rush to embrace storytelling as the greatest thing since sliced bread or reject it as annoying drivel, let’s try to understand it a bit better first.
Human beings have painted their stories on cave walls, shared them around campfires, carved them into pyramids, and recorded them on clay tablets since time immemorial. Today we continue to perform stories on stage and screen, self-publish them on Amazon, share them on Facebook and YouTube, and tell them in boardrooms and pitch meetings. While “storytelling” may be a current trend, story is clearly in our nature.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different explanation for why this is so. Psychologists point to dreams and memories as proof that stories get under our skin. Sociologists tell us stories are a cohesive force that binds us to one another. Neuroscientists inform us that when we read about a fictitious character sipping tea we respond in the same way we would if we were actually sipping tea.
Whatever the explanation, we end up at the same place: Human beings find meaning in story.
It doesn’t take much to see how true this is. Why is it so hard to convince someone with an opposing point of view to see things our way even when the cold, hard facts are on our side? Because that person has a story about why he believes what he believes, and that story carries more weight than the facts. We tend to forget that and end up trying to convince people by beating them over the head with proof. It might be more effective to enter the story and speak from there.
What does this mean for an entrepreneur? So very much, but I will focus on a single but important insight: Story isn’t something we create or listen to or absorb—it’s something we live.
To illustrate this, let me tell you…a story. (Bah, oui!)
I recently accompanied an actress friend to an audition for a cleaning product commercial. On the metro there, she ran through her lines: “XYZ cleaning product not only cleans your house, it purifies it too.”
Say what? This was my grandmother’s commercial.
Think about it. A copywriter actually wrote this. A casting director was now casting it. My friend and a dozen other actresses were schlepping out to the suburbs to read for it.
Why? Who is this commercial going to convince?
My Greek grandmother took excessive pride in her housekeeping skills. This is the woman who taught me to lift tables and wipe the bottom of the feet. To her, few things were more holy than purity and cleanliness. She would have been hooked by this ad. It would have fit her story about herself perfectly.
Fast forward to today. No one has my grandmother’s time and energy to devote to housekeeping any longer. We’re happy if we manage to get it done at all, and we also feel guilty for using toxic chemicals to expedite the process. Our priorities and values have changed since my grandmother’s time, and consequently so have our stories. That purity thing? No way it’s eco-friendly. It’s got poison written all over it. I could be wrong, but swaying me with facts is useless.
Unless of course you understand the power of storytelling. Here comes the concrete take-away I promised. Ready?
Story can transport us from information through experience to a new insight or conclusion.
This blog post is an example of the process. I presented some information, and then I made a statement: “Story is something we live.” Then I told a story. I bet we’ve all known people like my grandmother. I also bet we all struggle with the demands of daily life, and we’ve all experienced silly commercials. My story speaks to a shared experience. I’m sure you understood my statement on an intellectual level when I made it, but I bet it didn’t come alive for you until I told my story.
The next time you find yourself presenting your investors or your customers with information and you’re not getting the response you want, try to tell a story that speaks to your shared values in order to transmit your information. If you’ve got a cleaning product that speaks to my values and concerns, don’t bombard me with dry science and statistics; tell me a story using those same facts. If you want some inspiration, check out this video. It turns an academic study about wealth inequality in the US by a Harvard business professor and a Duke University economist into an impactful story accessible to anyone: http://mashable.com/2013/03/02/wealth-inequality/#m!5aee
If you remain authentic and speak from your values, your stories will be meaningful and will connect with your intended audience in a powerful way.