Features | From Pivot Magazine

Why every business needs to be a storyteller

Stories are essential to a company’s success. Here are four stories yours needs to tell.

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Photo of book Stories that stickIn Stories That Stick, author Kindra Hall proclaims that stories are the most important tools in any business’s kit

In Stories That Stick, author Kindra Hall proclaims that stories are the most important, if underutilized, tools in any business’s kit. So, does Hall practise what she preaches? Do her stories actually stick? The short answer: like burrs.

Hall is a professional storyteller who is well-versed in the neuroscience of human communication. Evolution has turned humans into the story species: stories are how we learn, what launches us into action and how we come to empathize with and trust those outside our immediate orbit. Stories grab attention and, if they convey authentic emotion, stimulate the release of oxytocin, the “love chemical” that, for example, binds mothers and newborns. Their details “stick” in the memory long after other, more data-driven pitches have evaporated, by activating what is known as HOME (human oxytocin-mediated empathy)—a brain circuit that encourages learning by providing us with small, pleasurable jolts when we recall good or memorable things. It’s the same mechanism that allowed pre-literate societies to keep oral histories alive for centuries.

Crucially, research shows a degree of synchronization between the brains of the teller and the audience. The latter become “co-creators” as they are pulled into the world of the story, which they subconsciously meld with their own, a phenomenon Hall sums up in a neat turn of phrase: “Stories don’t just make us like each other; they make us like each other.” All this, when delivered by engaging stories—including one of a neuroscientist impelled into oxytocin research after Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby reduced him to tears—adds up to any business’s Holy Grail: prospective customers whose attention is willingly engaged.

Humans are the stories species: they’re how we learn, how we empathize, what inspires us to act

Having demonstrated the science behind our attachment to narrative accounts, Hall turns to the nuts and bolts of effective stories. They need four elements: identifiable characters, authentic emotion, a significant moment and specific details. They require a tripartite structure, a beginning, middle and end that Hall dubs “normal” (a slice of everyday life that features a chronic problem that frustrates or saddens the character); “explosion” (not a literal blow-up, but the product, service or insight that solves the problem); and “new normal” (happier than the old normal).

Every business, Hall asserts, has four essential stories to tell. There is the purpose story, which helps rally employees in hard times. For the customer story, Hall includes helpful techniques companies can use to shape client responses into the sort of detail-rich testimonials that are marketing gold. The value story is about what a company offers customers; often that boils down to time, as in the tale of an executive whose workload was so reduced by new accounting software that he could finally train for a triathlon, a long-held dream. The founder story bolsters confidence among investors, partners and employees.

One of Hall’s “meta” tales, a story about stories, nicely catches the distinction between the two most important story types, value and founder. Suzanne Cannon, stuck in a bad divorce and flat broke, almost lost her beloved dog one weekend when faced with an emergency $4,000 veterinarian bill. That experience was the catalyst for her company, VetBilling, which helps vets provide flexible payment plans to pet owners. Hers was the perfect, emotionally moving founder story, but it wasn’t generating revenue. Although vets willingly signed on to the service, which was easy to use and risk-free, real success needed a fuller engagement from them. They had to sell the plan to distraught owners. So Cannon crafted a value story around what VetBilling offered veterinarians, not just their clients. It was a story of people who entered their profession because they loved animals but were kept awake at night by having to turn away sick pets in order to maintain a solvent business. The story wove in how Cannon’s solution meant good things for everyone (and every critter) involved. Her business soon quadrupled in size.

Every good novelist and spellbinding TED speaker understands what Hall preaches. But the current buzz around storytelling in business indicates it may well be a novelty for Hall’s audience of sales and marketing professionals. Hall has been blurbed by marketing sage Seth Godin, whose 2018 bestseller, This Is Marketing, argues the only lasting way for companies to connect with clients is to establish trust by demonstrating empathy. Godin allows that traditional marketing can be, in his word, “evil,” but that such marketing is also ineffective, at least in the long run. Hall goes further, insisting that any story that truly links teller and listener is by definition a force for good—although readers might find that assumption a little too blithe when she devotes nearly a thousand admiring words to the manipulative power of an Extra gum ad.

Hall is dead right, though, about the power of tales, the way they make us bond with the teller, the way they stick in our memories when fact, figures and logic have all faded away. And she tells a very good story about it all.