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Though many would blame the advertising industry, responsibility for one of the biggest recent trends in the business world undoubtedly dates back thousands of years, to campfires and tribal gatherings. We are, of course, referring to storytelling. Human beings have such a strong taste for the narrative arcs of conflict, tension and resolution that even people we might otherwise admire for a singular talent – actors, singers or athletes – nowadays often come with a heart-tugging backstory.

If our mystical faith in its power isn’t enough, neuroscientists have given us scientific evidence: the voodoo is real. Tell us stories, they have shown, and our brains produce cortisol (making us attentive), oxytocin (which makes us empathise with the characters), and dopamine, the human feel-good factor. No wonder CEOs adore them: who doesn’t want to be listened to, empathised with and loved?

But if this sounds like we’ve finally found our ticket to Sunny Uplands, take a moment of two to consider the idea of stories. If the synonyms listed at thesaurus.com don’t ring any alarms, the antonyms might. One opposite of ‘stories’ is ‘truth’. Something that didn’t escape Oscar Wilde when he wrote:

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” 

The kind of stories that business likes to tell are more like fables or parables: ambiguous or complicating details are stripped away so that a lesson – often a moral one, loosely speaking – can be delivered. Given the reasons that business likes to tell stories – typically, to inspire, persuade or convince – there is a tendency towards happy endings that can feel forced, especially with repetition. Stories are sweeter than Weetabix: one is usually enough.

The relationship between stories and ‘truth’ is complex, with many novelists being adamant that while names, dates, locations and facts may have been changed, fiction tells a clearer version of the truth than any non-fiction account. To which the reader might reply that it depends very much on whose truth you are telling, and why. One reasons well-told stories are powerful is that they are believable. Accordingly, the audience might also notice that the storyteller’s freedom to modify or tailor the facts is, at the very least, convenient. Coincidences do happen, but not that often. Any internal chemical rush notwithstanding, audiences are also sharp enough to appreciate that storytelling can be a form of packaging – of the teller as much as the tale. As Mary Ann Shaffer wrote in her novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society:

“Men are more interesting in books than they are in real life.” 

Storytelling is a way of escaping everyday dullness, to deliver tales that build trust and commitment and implicitly convey values: its aim is to warm hearts. Just remember that seduction – even metaphorically – has its time and place: usually early in a relationship when the seducer most needs to feel loved and believed, or later when they feel the relationship is under threat. But once a relationship is underway, seduction might not be the best approach: there aren’t many second honeymoons in the world of work.

Any storyteller needs to pay close attention to their audience. If they appear more interested in having their mind addressed than their heart, if their disinterest or disbelief needs explicit countering, storytelling may not be the best way to proceed. Deborah Sole and Daniel Wilson’s Training and Development article, Storytelling in Organisations (PDF), compares storytelling with other methods of knowledge sharing. If your aims are to share tacit knowledge, facilitate unlearning and change, or generate emotional connections, they argue that all these activities are more effectively undertaken through mentoring, demonstrations and apprenticeships, and by simulations (defined as including role-playing and case studies).

It’s not the only point to bear in mind:

  • Storytelling is often formulaic: as business adopts storytelling, there is a tendency to identify magic formulae for what makes ‘a great story’. Establish conflict, explore tension, and display resolution; ensure characters are clearly defined as goodies and baddies. These may be the Lego bricks of a great story, but there is more to storytelling than stacking them together. It is the point of your story – its lesson or its moral – than people need to discern, not the engineering and the framework underneath. Too much obvious formula and the trick turns stale: people might like stories, but they don’t like feeling knowingly manipulated.
  • Storytelling is difficult: it’s a complex skill, and not something you can just simply and quickly adopt. Mastery, like in so many fields, takes time, dedication and practice, but it makes the difference between delivering a powerful story and telling tales. If you’re leaving audiences undecided whether the phrase ‘urban legend’ best describes your less-than-convincing anecdotes or you – “Oh, Harry? The man’s legendary. Don’t let him start telling you a story though…” – you’ve failed.
  • Storytelling is broadcasting: if you’re telling stories to create emotional connections and a sense of bonding, your approach may be mistaken. Relationships operate in two directions, if not more: as any relationship counsellor would advise, listening is a vital element. But storytelling casts the audience as permanently fixed in listening mode, and the storyteller as permanently talking. Stories come in many styles, lengths and formats, but there is one thing that they never are: conversations.
  • Storytelling isn’t the only way: there are two points here. Firstly, if you’re concerned that your audience learns something, remember that people learn in different ways and have individual preferences. A steady diet of narrative won’t work for everyone, and you should aiming for more than admiration: you should be trying to create better employees, not a circle of devoted listeners. What they do when they’ve heard the story is what really matters.Secondly, what your audience really needs may sometimes be something else: a clearly demonstrated example, specific skills training, a clearly written handbook or a brief update of facts and figures. Stories aren’t a substitute for everything.

The video above is an extract from our recent conversation with Caspar Berry, motivational speaker and former professional poker player. To hear more from Caspar – and to ask him questions too – come to our Breakfast Briefing event on Friday 7th October.