When he was in Year 2, my son had a particular piece of English homework that was giving him trouble – copy down 5 sentences from any passage without making a mistake.
I picked a random passage from the newspaper and set him to work. But try as he might (and my son is a real tryer) he just couldn’t get it right. Every sentence had one little error or another. He was getting ratty, I was getting frustrated, and so being a typically irritable parent, I issued the kind of ridiculous ultimatum that irritable parents issue: Do your sentences perfectly, or you can’t go to the party this afternoon.
That was a serious threat. It was his best friend’s party and he’s been looking forward to it all week. Missing it would have been devastating.
“But the sentences are so boring”, he complained not without justification. And that gave me an idea. What if we practised by copying sentences from his favourite Spiderman comic?
And that was it! 20 minutes later, he had written one full paragraph (7 sentences) about Spidey tricking some lizard looking guy, all without a single mistake. Perfection, and better still he enjoyed doing it. Crisis avoided; the party was on; and my son felt like a superhero.
Why? Why did a change of passage make such a difference? Because when it comes to the human mind, whether child or adult, we respond best to the things we find interesting.
And when it comes to interesting, there’s nothing better than a good story.
Stories convey meaning without effort. Stories teach us messages without us realising it. They inflame passions and inspire action. They can change the way we think, what we feel, and how we act.
So, whether you are pitching your business to a new client, seeking management go-ahead for a new project, or promoting your brand to a new market, whenever you are seeking to persuade people or motivate them to action, a great story is your most effective tool.
Yeah, that’s all very interesting, Kola, I hear you say. Everyone’s talking about stories, but no one tells you exactly how to do it.
Have no fear, Super Kolarele to the rescue! Here’s why, when and how to use stories to get what you want.
(this is a long form post so if you’re pushed for time, just download the Free Cheat Sheet summary with my 5 Part Formula for an Effective Story)
Why stories work
According to a Stanford University, research study stories are 22 times more likely to be remembered than raw facts.
Facts engage the analytical left hemispheres of our brains, which concerns logic and maths and problem solving, which means that when he hear facts, we are immediately minded to analyse them. The left side is cynical and demands certainty.
Stories by contrast engage the creative right hemisphere of our brains – the side concerned with music, art, feelings and imagination. When we hear stories, our emotions are aroused and this helps us feel connected to the subject. Most importantly, it is our emotional right hemisphere that is responsible for decision making and motivating us to act.
Neuroscience has proved this phenomenon, with studies involving brain scans showing the different areas of the brain that light up when we listen to stories as opposed to facts. Chemical analysis also proves that when we hear stories, we enjoy a release of Cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’ that kicks in when we are immersed in something with an uncertain outcome) and Oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’ that makes us empathise and want to take action).
In short, facts get us to think, stories get us to feel.
It’s why tyrants are as concerned with the work of playwrights as the words of political activists, because they recognise the immense power of stories to change minds and spark movements.
It’s why you had to know whether my son made it to his party, even though it was a short and very simple story. (Ever noticed how sometimes you have to watch a really bad movie like Speed 2 all the way til the end even though you’re not enjoying it?)
It’s why Jesus used parables; why we teach children not to lie by telling them about ‘The Boy who cried wolf’; and why the most successful adverts are not the ones that talk about product features, but that ones with an engaging narrative like Apple’s groundbreaking 1984 advert, John Lewis’ touching christmas advert, or the brilliant Guinness surfer advert.
Stories are the most effective vehicle for imparting a message without sounding like you are trying to impart a message.
That’s the why. Now, the when.
When to use Storytelling
Facts and figures are important of course. Even if emotions are the biggest driver of action, if people do not have the factual information to support and justify a decision they wish to make, there is every chance the lack of justification will undermine the decision you wish them to make.
Storytelling is particularly effective when you need other people to make a decision or take action, but the facts in support are finely balanced or and opinions are evenly split.
This is the sweet spot for a great story. This is when the right story at the right time can completely change the dynamics of the situation.
In one of the many famous scenes in Pulp Fiction when Christopher Walken’s character wants to pass on a dead father’s watch to his young son and get him to appreciate the importance of the watch, he doesn’t say, this is your father’s watch, look after it. Instead he tells him an amazing (and colourful) story of what the father went through in a Japanese POW camp to save the watch for his son. It has the desired effect as we see the grown up son, played by Bruce Willis, endanger his life just to retrieve his watch (with all the ‘medieval on your ass!’ craziness that you always get with Tarantino movies).
When you really need people to listen, be persuaded, and taken action, that is the moment to break out a great story.
I love the Business of Story podcast as a great resource for using stories in a business context.
And finally, here’s the HOW!
How to use storytelling to get what you want
(Unless you like searching the internet for interesting articles you heard one day, good idea to download my Free Storytelling Checklist and save it for the next time you need to persuade someone).
Effective storytelling has a simple but highly effective set of mechanics that work to move an audience.
This 5 part structure applies as much to short business presentations as to complex Pixar animation movies. Done right, it is scientifically guaranteed to engage your audience and make them receptive to your ultimate goal.
1) Set the context and introduce your protagonist (main character)
Your first step is to set the world or context which your main character inhabits. Stories have to begin somewhere and the best method is to create a world and character that is immediately intriguing to your audience.
Examples: Simba, a young carefree prince in the East African Savannah – The Lion King; Walter White as a broke high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque – Breaking Bad; My son doing his homework in the story at the start of this post.
If you were pitching for business to a new client, you might use a case study about a similar client in a similar situation. Or if you were trying to persuade your colleagues in a business meeting on a particular strategy, you might give an example of another company that was faced with a similar dilemma.
2) Introduce conflict that creates a problem
Stories live and die by the depth of the conflict involved.No story is complete without it.
The deeper the conflict the more absorbing the story. (The evil Empire is taking over the universe – Star Wars; King Mufasa dies and Scar and the wicked hyenas take over the kingdom, banishing Simba – The Lion King; Walter is diagnosed with cancer and needs to manufacture drugs to make money for his family before he dies – Breaking Bad;
In your client pitch with the case study, you would for instance highlight the frustrations the client was facing with their market share and competition; or in that business meeting, you could share the crisis that your example company faced.
In the Homework story, the conflict was my son’s difficulties getting his homework right, and that naughty Father standing over his shoulder seething instead of supporting.
3) Heighten the stakes
What really gets an audience absorbed in a story is heightened stakes and when the consequences of the problem are dire and potentially catastrophic.
The big stakes in my homework story were the risk that my son would miss out on his best friend’s party.
In the pitch to the client, you tell of the disaster that the client experienced before taking on your services. In the business meeting, focus on the time the example company nearly went bankrupt.
A really great storyteller ramps up the stakes systematically, creating first tension, then disaster, then a big catastrophe.
In Star Wars there’s tension as the Empire looks set to destroy the resistance; disaster happens when Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed by Darth Vader; catastrophe hits when the Death Star laser blasts an entire planet and discovers the rebel stronghold.
The higher the stakes, the more intensely your story will grip your audience (you’ll almost see the Cortisol flowing) and the more desparate they will be to see the resolution.
4) Resolve the story
Stories have to have an ending that resolves the issues raised.
Harry gets Sally; Simba overcomes Scar and becomes King; Luke fires the winning shot to destroy the Death Star.
In the ‘Son vs Homework’ story, things are resolved when Naughty Dad calls in Spiderman for support, and Super Son succeeds by getting his homework right so he can go to the party (which as it happens had a superhero theme).
In your client pitch, you show how the strategy you recommended to the client saved the day and solved the client’s problem; in the business pitch, perhaps it’s how the other company figured out the solution that you are now recommending.
One interesting and counter-intuitive phenomenon to note: Stories do not have to have happy endings. In fact a study has shown that a story with a negative or unhappy ending is far more effective at motivating action than one with a positive ending.
It seems the feeling that a negative ending triggers is more likely to make an audience determined to avoid that same outcome, than a positive outcome, which could leave them with the complacent idea that it’ll all be fine in the end so not to worry. So for instance, if you want your company to be prepared to embrace change, instead of highlighting Apple as a good example of this, you are probably far better off reminding them of how Kodak or Nokia used to rule the world and then crashed because they wouldn’t adapt their business strategy. Oprah used this brilliantly whilst campaigning to encourage people to vote.
5) Moral of the Story
What is the point of your story?
The mistake that people often make is to decide on a story to tell before they have worked out what point they want to make.
Although the moral of your story is the last point you make in your story, it should in fact be the very first thing you consider before speaking.
So long as your story has hit all the right notes so far, the moral of your story should resonate hugely with your audience, and help you impart your message with force.
In Star Wars, we learn that good will triumph over evil; The Lion King reminds kids to be true to themselves. The Hare and the Tortoise teaches us that slow and steady wins the race (unless of course you’re in a 100m race in which case that’s a terrible strategy.)
In your pitch, it might be that clients that use your services get premium outcomes; in the business presentation perhaps your point was that companies that are blind to current trends are doomed to fail.
In ‘Son vs Homework’ the moral of the story literally was that we respond best to interesting stories – although the moral of Son vs Homework Part II (the Sequel) was: Don’t let your child start to think that if a piece of homework isn’t that interesting, he doesn’t have to do it!
Story is science (neuroscience actually). Story is art. And if you start with the end in mind, Story is an awesome light saber of a weapon that will help you get whatever you want.
Use it wisely, young Jedi!
(remember to grab my Free Storytelling Checklist that goes with this post so you can use it for your next speech or presentation)
If you enjoyed this article on how to use storytelling, you may also like my article on How to get your audience to love you