13th March 2015

Why Storytelling is so hot right now

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If you haven’t noticed, storytelling is the hot, new thing in leadership.  Along with paleo food, spelt bread and beards, there’s a trend to going back to the basics and rediscovering the things that used to be the norm. Storytelling has been around since the beginning.  There was a time when we didn’t have computers, books or even a form of writing, and much of our culture, law and history were passed through stories.

The Australian aborigines have preserved a 40,000 year culture through traditional storytelling, handed down from generation to generation. Children were told stories from a very early age; stories that helped them understand the air, the land, the universe, their people, their culture and their history. Elders told stories of their journeys and their accomplishments, and as the children grew into adults they took on the responsibility of passing on the stories. These stories are as much a cultural necessity as they are entertainment.

If you’ve read Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, (all 800 to 900 pages of that epic poem), bear in mind that it was originally a series of tales recorded through storytelling, passed on verbally until a time when it was first written and eventually printed.

When we first began teaching our Accelerating Executive Presence (AEP) program in 2009, we built a module on persuasive presentations (not the PowerPoint kind) around Aristotle’s ‘three proofs’.  Back in early Greece, Aristotle’s ‘Rhetorics’ first surfaced the idea that there were three ways to persuade people.  The first, which we’re very familiar with in the corporate world, is through logos (or logic) – that is, the facts, the numbers, the rationale argument.  The second is through ethos (or credibility) of the presenter.  If one has a degree in classical music, you can probably sound more convincing in arguing Mozart as a more accomplished composer than Bach.  The third proof, and according to Aristotle, the most persuasive proof, is through the pathos (or feelings) that are evoked in the audience.  If you can make someone feel an emotion consistent with your argument, you’re more likely to persuade him or her.

Aristotle’s three proofs are the basis of most effective marketing campaigns.  Coke aren’t trying to persuade you through the benefits of a sugar and caffeine rush, nor the fact they know how to make sound, consistent and well effectively packaged drinks.  They want to remind you how you felt on a summer’s day when you were young and thirsty and tasted your first coke.  It’s all about your feelings, and in some ways, it’s making you nostalgic with a story of a better time past, or a good time yet to come. Those of us who have kids know the power of storytelling – Dr Suess, The Gruffalo, Hairy Maclary – we’ve seen the enthralled rapture of little ones tucked up in bed, begging for one more chapter or to ‘read it again’!

So what’s going on here – why is storytelling so powerful, and why has it made a comeback?   Some say it’s the ability to provide some escapism, to get our attention and to cease our mind wandering like it does when we stare at twenty lines of 14pt font on a PowerPoint slide.  Because they work at an emotional level, they tap into our subconscious mind and into feelings that we don’t normally control through our rational self.  Stories can get us away from our screens and our daydreaming. The best stories transport us into feeling like the protagonist – that’s why our hearts race during horror stories, or we cry when Andy’s mom packs up his toys before he goes to college in Toy Story 3.  We put ourselves into the story, empathise and feel like the characters in them.  That’s why stories have impact, why they’re memorable and why they can move us to change our thinking and behavior.

So what does this have to do with work? In the work setting, we’re starting to see more people realising the benefits of using stories to sell their vision or products, to inform their teams and to become more interesting, memorable (and ultimately persuasive) in their presentations.

But where do you start?  What makes a great story?  Here’s a few ideas we’ve picked up along the way

  • Give your story a setting or context so people can place it in terms of relevance to them, to you or the matter at hand
  • Use some descriptive language, metaphors etc.  It needs to be somewhat entertaining –  be prepared to commit yourself to it
  • Keep it short – around three minutes is great, more than seven and people will be thinking ‘where is this going?’
  • Engage your audience – ask questions if others have experienced something similar (a great way to get people more connected to your yarn)
  • Include some suspense or a surprise – a great story will have a twist or unexpected ending

With the help of some people we work with from the performing arts world, we recently designed and ran an Authentic Storytelling workshop for a team in Sydney who wanted to get better at selling their product, (a tourist destination) through stories.  For them, it was about telling great stories about skiing, swimming, fishing or hiking – all about creating feelings and nothing about price, efficient airport connections or a favourable currency.  Sure those things might help, but the joy of a holiday in a breathtaking location really does seem to be more compelling than saving a few bucks or passing through customs quickly.

So we’ll continue to focus on storytelling in our AEP programs, as we know a more compelling executive presence is created when one can tell stories that connect with an audience and evoke feelings that compels them to think and act differently.

Isn’t that leadership?

For more information on our program: www.acceleratingep.com

Glen Petersen
Managing Director, Generator Talent Group & Co-Facilitator of AEP 


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