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Enthusiastic Business Storytelling Is Infectious

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Enthusiastic Business Storytelling Is Infectious

There’s a lot of buzz about storytelling lately, from Richard Branson to Gary Vaynerchuk, all the cool kids are talking about it.

So, what’s all the fuss about? And as a small business owner, should you care? In a word, yes. Storytelling is so much more than the latest marketing fad. It allows business leaders to communicate in a way that sticks.

Stories and the structures underlying them have been honed over thousands of years to be entertaining, gripping and above all, memorable. The invention of storytelling was critical to our survival as a species because the information encoded in stories could be a matter of life and death.

As the digital revolution unfolds, much has changed. But storytelling remains as relevant as it was when the first humans created oral traditions around the campfire. What does this mean for a business leader? If you want to rally people to your cause, one vivid and engaging customer story is more powerful (by far) than a hundred PowerPoint information dumps.

In case you’re still not convinced, here’s the science.

The science of storytelling.

Researchers have started to test the power of storytelling in the lab. The findings suggest that humans are hardwired to engage with, recall and act on stories; more than any other form of information.

For example, research by Paul Zak at Harvard has shown that telling stories elicits the release of oxytocin; a feel-good hormone that makes the audience more likely to cooperate with the storyteller. Meanwhile, Princeton’s Uri Hasson was able to demonstrate that the same regions light up in the brain of the teller and the audience; in other words, telling a story can make the thoughts and feelings of the audience synchronise with the teller’s.

I’m going to assume that your business needs to influence, motivate and persuade certain people, including your team, customers and partners. Getting them to want to cooperate with you, and synchronising their thoughts and feelings with yours, sounds quite useful, does it not?

The science is telling us that well-structured, emotional narratives will give you a better chance of making a positive impression, being remembered over the long term, and motivating people to act as you would like them to.

Four stories your business needs.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and before you become a storyteller of the ilk of Bryan Stevenson, you must start somewhere. With that in mind, here are the four stories every business owner should have up their sleeve:

1. The founder or origin story.

This is a compelling and emotional story about why and how you founded your business. Airbnb was famously founded by three guys who were struggling to pay their rent and decided to rent out three air beds on their living-room floor for visitors to a San Francisco design conference. What excited them the most about the new business model they created, was the opportunity to design something new, without creating ‘more stuff that ends up in landfill’. Why and how did you start your business?

2. The customer experience story.

More than a case study, this should be a story about how your company has done something outstanding to create an amazing customer experience or outcome. For example, Zappos is known for going to outlandish lengths in the name of customer service. They’ve sent flowers to a woman who ordered six pairs of shoes because her feet were injured; overnighted free shoes to a best man who arrived at a wedding shoeless; and paid the tolls on a turnpike motorway for a day. Your story doesn’t have to be quite so ‘out there’, but the more unusual it is, the more memorable it will be.

3. The hardship story.

Also known as ‘rags to riches’, this is about going through great challenges to achieve success. Everyone relates to the struggle and loves to hear about heroes who ultimately come out on top. This kind of story can also motivate your team to keep going, even when times are tough.

Consider Leonardo Del Vecchio, founder of Luxottica, the world’s largest producer and retailer of sunglasses and prescription glasses (and owner of Ray-Ban, Oakley and Sunglass Hut). Sent to an orphanage aged seven, he became an apprentice at an eyeglass factory. Working in brutal conditions, he lost part of a finger; but discovered a love for machinery. He put himself through design school and, seeing the opportunity to expand the eye glass market; he built a business from the ground up. He is now Italy’s second-richest man.

Your hardship story might not be as extreme as Del Vecchio’s, but there’s no doubt you’ve been through hard times in your life, whether setting up your business or otherwise. What’s the story you can draw from these experiences?

4. The company culture story.

Create a high-performance culture within your business using stories that illustrate ‘how we do things around here’. During the Great Depression, Ole Kirk Christiansen, the founder of Lego, stuck to the belief that ‘only the best is good enough’ for Lego customers. When his son Gotfred proudly announced that he’d saved cash by applying only two of the usual three coats of varnish to a wooden duck, he got a fierce telling-off. The story has gone down in company history, and it encodes an important guiding principle for Lego; quality comes first. 

Storytellers are made, not born.

Telling stories may feel strange at first, especially if you come from a corporate background where data rules. Be comforted by the thought that every storyteller had to start somewhere; practice makes perfect. On top of that, every story improves with the telling, so if in doubt, get out there and test your story with as many audiences as possible. You’ll soon get a feel for what resonates and what falls a little flat.

Above all; be real, be authentic and enjoy yourself. Enthusiasm is infectious!

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