Stories Are Having a Moment

Given what I’m about to write, this blog should be a hero story about a frustrated exec who uses storytelling to transform disinterested employees into faithful followers….

Maybe next time.

For now, what I will say is that THE common thread we’re hearing across clients and industries is an interest in learning to tell stories. The secret is out. Something that we’ve known intrinsically from the power of children’s stories and our ability to pass stories over generations is getting the enthusiastic attention of psychology and neuroscience researchers.

The gist of what brain science is telling us is that stories are the most powerful way to change attitudes, motivate, influence, connect with and inspire people.  And this is what has leaders listening.

  • But what is it about stories and business?
  • Why did 3M ban bullet points in favor of strategic narrative?
  • Why are top business schools incorporating story into their curriculum?
  • Why does story have the unique power to persuade and motivate?

To put it simply, it’s how we’re wired. When we’re presented with a list of bullet points, our brain activates its language processing capacity- where words take on meaning. And that’s great. But when we hear a story, we relate it to our existing experiences. The frontal cortex, responsible for experiencing emotions, is activated as if we were actually IN the story- tasting the waffles, feeling the panic of an unprepared presentation.  Likely for this reason, studies show that people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story vs. analytical mode. Uri Hasson at Princeton and Paul Zak at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center are both doing exciting work in the space.

So what does this mean for leaders? Stories motivate and inspire staff because they “bring brains together” in a way, something narratologists refer to as transportation. The brains of storyteller and listener(s) synchronize in the moment a story is being told. I’m reminded of how getStoried storytelling guru and gothamCulture friend, Michael Margolis, describes the “invisible lines of connection” that stories create between people.

Think of a leader who is trying to help her organization be more risk tolerant. The most effective way to motivate risk-taking behavior is through story – a time she took a risk, the fears she had, how she created something new, and the reward she reaped. This is the difference between getting people to do what you want and getting people to want what you want.

Not to mention that culture IS the stories that we tell. Stories and culture are inextricably linked. To initiate culture change, leaders need to change the stories they tell – and this refers no less to the stories we tell in passing in the hall as it does company-wide briefs.  As deeply embedded as stories are in our history, it’s no surprise leaders are anxious to harness the power of story for positive organizational change. And we at gothamCulture are excited to be involved.