Benefits of Storytelling in the Workplace
If bringing people together around a vision or idea is part of your job, learning how to be a good storyteller can be immensely beneficial.
Last March, I was cleaning out my inbox when I came across a surprising email from someone who’d completed one of Ei’s Storytelling workshops.
It was from a Design Director at a local creative agency. I learned she had been working with her team on an idea to pitch a client on new work. It would be expensive work, and it wasn’t something the client was asking for. The team was confident, though, that their idea could dramatically improve business and give the company’s brand a much-needed boost. But they were stuck in terms of how to make a compelling case to the client, and she needed me to resend the materials from our workshop.
I sent her the storytelling framework, finished clearing out my Inbox, and left to catch my train home.
Later that evening, she followed up:
It turned out the pitch went well, and they were asked to run a workshop with the senior leaders at the company’s headquarters.
Later, she sent me one last email… they won the pitch!
Moving Others to Action
In his book To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink points out that, while only 1 in 9 people work in sales, a great majority of white collar work is what he calls “non-sales selling” — communicating with others in a persuasive way to try to make something happen. So, whether you’re pitching new work to a client, communicating the value of a new initiative, or leading your team through a tough transition, bringing people together around a vision or idea is likely a core part of your job.
Storytelling is a specific kind of persuasive communication, one that is particularly well-designed for creating memorable, compelling messages. In his work on Public Narrative, Harvard professor Marshall Ganz describes how stories are particularly suited for creating meaning in ways that connect with human emotions and move people to action.
We know from recent research that our brains are wired for story and there are many benefits of storytelling. We naturally make sense of the world, telling ourselves stories about what is happening and why. We remember things better when we hear them in story form, and powerful hormones such as oxytocin, the same hormone when you experience trust or kindness, are released in our bodies when we hear a good story.
Using a Process
Storytelling is both Art and Science. Having a process and structure to lean into can help with the Science part. (Only practice can help with the Art part.)
Too often, we try to sit down and jump right into crafting the story. Even though our brains are naturally good at recognizing and telling stories, we still need a starting point. Just as design thinking has created a process and tools for making human centered innovation systematic, there are ways to make the stories we tell consistently compelling and engaging.
At Ei, we teach a four-step process that we learned from our friend and storyteller extraordinaire, Seamus Harte.
Capture | Take 5-10 minutes to quickly write down everything you know and want to say about the subject. Don’t try to organize it, just get all of the data out of your head and down on paper. After writing everything out, collect any organic, authentic material surrounding the story (photos, sketches, videos, audio, etc).
Shape | Choose a framework that serves your goal and audience, and use it to organize your data into the structure of a story (see some examples below). Create a quick first draft, share it with someone you trust, get some feedback, and use that to improve your story.
Make | Now translate the story into the medium you want to use for communication (blog, pitch deck, memo, presentation, video, etc). Again, make quickly, get feedback, and refine.
Share | Consider how you’ll share your story. If you’re presenting live, practice your delivery with your audience in mind. If using another medium, create the assets (ie: photos/videos/copywriting) and schedule times for when you’ll share with your audience.
Drawing on Proven Frameworks
When it comes to Shaping a story, a good storytelling framework is like a coaching playbook — it can’t do the work for you, but it can be an invaluable guide. Here are three of our favorites:
The Story Spine
Developed by playwright Kenn Adams in 1991 and popularized by Pixar, the story spine sets out a simple 8-line structure that can form the backbone of any story, from Cinderella, to Star Wars, to your next product pitch. The Story Spine is great for putting your customer/client at the center of a story, and showing how a current challenge might be overcome.
The Hero’s Journey
Another, similar framework that offers the benefits of storytelling is the Hero’s Journey. Developed by Joseph Campbell and detailed in his classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Hero’s Journey is a framework that shows up in the stories and myths from cultures all over the world and throughout history. It describes the stages a hero or heroine goes through as she encounters a challenge, takes it on, and is transformed for the better in the process.
Developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz and based on his decades of community organizing work in the Civil Rights Movement and later with the United Farm Workers, Public Narrative provides a framework for crafting and sharing stories that move people to action. Ganz focuses on the way that stories can help make new meaning of present circumstances, and paint the picture of a changed future. His Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now framework provides a structure that helps a leader share her personal story, connect that story to values shared by her audience, and then communicate a clear call to action that can bring those values to life. The Public Narrative is a perfect structure for a rallying cry when facing internal challenges and needing to summon strength and perseverance.
Try it Yourself
Think about the projects on your plate right now. Identify a place where you need to move others to action, or help bring about a change in behavior. Use the Capture-Shape-Make-Share process, and one of the storytelling frameworks above to craft your message in a more deliberate and compelling way.
Each of these books combines extensive professional experience, helpful examples, and practical frameworks for powerful, persuasive storytelling.
- Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, by Stephen Denning
- Putting Stories to Work, by Shawn Callahan
- To Sell is Human, by Daniel Pink
- Ira Glass on Storytelling | In a series of short videos, the founder and host of This American Life describes the two basic building blocks of compelling storytelling.
- “Start with Why” | In this popular TED talk, Simon Sinek talks about how effective leaders communicate the “Why,” of an idea first, not the “What.”