Storytelling: The New Corporate Campfire

March 30th, 2007

My daughter Andie, age 5, ends her day with the same request: “Dad, tell me a story.” By this point I’ve pretty much emptied my vault of all the stories from my youth. She doesn’t realize that at five, she’s become the default family historian and human Wikipedia. She can access and repeat verbatim, in rich detail, any one of the dozens of stories that she has heard.

How about you? Heard any good stories lately? Chances are you have, and for good reason. They work. Good storytelling is fast becoming the new secret weapon of top communicators — for everything from sales presentations to delivering bad news in the board room.

From man’s earliest cave days, humans have used narrative to teach and communicate. It turns out our brains are still wired to receive narrative stories – not statistics. It’s only been in the last few decades that corporate leaders have replaced our instinct for good storytelling with bullet points, pitch decks and key messages. The stripped-down formats may be easier to digitize. But what we have gained in speed, we have lost in impact. Bullets kill. Stories inspire.

In the new book Made to Stick, (which I think should have been named the Sticking Point), author Chip Heath tells a story about an experiment he conducted with some of his students at Stanford.

After dividing the students into groups, he had them listen to rounds of one-minute speeches on, let’s say, crime stats in the US. Nearly all the speakers used statistics and bullet points as their primary content. However, one speaker told stories. After a 10-minute distraction (he actually showed a vintage clip from Monty Python), they were asked to pull out a sheet of paper and write down, for each speaker they heard, every single idea they remembered. Many drew a complete blank – unable to remember a single concept. Except from one speaker. You guessed it — the storyteller. A whopping 65 percent remember the stories – almost verbatim! Only 5 percent remember any statistics from the others.

Grandparents and Steven Spielberg have known this for years. Spielberg actually used a simple cartoon story at a critical point in his Jurassic Park movie to make sure audiences would understand the premise that a drop of prehistoric DNA could be preserved intact in a drop of amber goo. He tested several devices with audiences. A simple story worked best.

Good storytelling is a natural human art form. It requires the fundamental elements of good narrative – a setting, strong character development, rising and falling action, a climax and a resolution. In fact, research shows the richer the detail, the better the recall and impact. How is it you can still remember a 20-minute story told to you at age eight by your Pop Pop, but can’t remember the content on slide six of your own board presentation? It’s easy. Narrative.

Think of storytelling as a way to use voice, tone, imagery and gestures to help the audience create a mental movie — with them in it. When they can see themselves in the movie, they internalize the content and make it their own. Isn’t that every salesperson’s or CEO’s ultimate wish?

Strategic storytelling is the best method of connecting with your audience and continues to be a crucial component of any corporate communications plan. After all, “You remember 1/3 of what you read, 1/2 of what people tell you, but 100 percent of what you feel,” said Bill Swanson, CEO of aerospace contractor Raytheon (RTN), Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management.

So the next time you have a big presentation, put down the PowerPoint and conjure up a strong strategic story. My audience of one almost never goes to sleep until after “The End.”

Posted Under: Agency Insider, Storytelling
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