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The Science of Business Storytelling

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Freya Owen

Research Consultant

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Oliver Woodhead

Global Consulting Director, Transformation Strategy

Throughout history, storytelling has been the most potent and enduring method of communication, transcending cultures, generations and technologies.

In the realm of business, the power of storytelling is no less remarkable. From engaging customers and inspiring employees to captivating investors, harnessing the art of storytelling can be a transformative force that propels businesses towards success.

In this article, we delve into the striking impact of business storytelling and explore how incorporating business storytelling strategies can foster alignment and collaboration across diverse workforces. We explain why stories are memorable and thus can facilitate effective knowledge transfer and communication, among other things.

Stories are Impactful, Aligning and Memorable

1. Stories have Impact

Stories tap into our emotions and imagination, triggering a profound cognitive response. Neuroimaging studies have shown that when we listen to a story, our brains engage multiple systems simultaneously, creating vivid mental images and boosting both focus and concentration. 1  Stories evoke the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine, enhancing our attention. 2 Furthermore, as stories unfold, our brain’s default mode as a prediction machine comes into play, keeping us engaged and receptive to plot twists and surprises.

Implication for the workplace: Storytelling is a powerful tool for eliciting the attention of employees and sustaining their focus. Whatever the intention behind the story, increased attention and focus will lead to greater engagement, in-turn boosting productivity and producing business results.

2. Stories Foster Alignment

Humans are inherently social beings driven by a need for belonging, and stories satisfy this need by connecting individuals to a shared purpose within the business. Stories evoke the release of several hormones which are associated with increased trust, empathy and group cohesion. 3

The release of oxytocin enhances our inclination to promote our ‘in-group’, 4 which in the workplace means our colleagues. And endorphins, the principal hormone involved in social bonding, create feelings (among those listening) of safety, happiness and trust.5 Taken together, stories foster alignment, inspire collective action and powerfully elevate social bonding. 6

 

Implication for the workplace: Storytelling helps foster alignment through greater empathy and trust and greater commitment to shared goals. Stories enable the alignment of people around a vision and create a clear connection between the work of individuals and the bigger picture. Thus, storytelling plays an important role in building and maintaining a culture where employees are engaged, committed and united.

 

3. Stories are Memorable

The power of storytelling lies in how humans process and retain information. We consider why stories are quickly internalised and effortlessly remembered through the following lenses:

  • Psychology: By presenting information through stories, a shared experience is created; we identify with characters, empathize with their struggles and learn from their triumphs and failures. These emotions explain why stories are more likely to be internalised and remembered, as emotion is a key driver of learning and memory.
  • Anthropology: The human brain is naturally attuned to stories, a phenomenon honed over millions of years of evolution, making the process of storytelling effortless and engaging even at a subconscious level.
  • Neuroscience: Not only do stories tap into our explicit memory system through the evocation of emotion, but they also tap into our working and implicit memory systems. Information in the form of a narrative, rather than standalone facts or disjointed concepts is easier to process within our working memory 7 and a greater volume of information can be stored through our pattern-recognising implicit memory system.

 

Implication for the workplace: Storytelling helps foster alignment through an effective way to share information which needs to be learned and remembered. Stories are particularly helpful when tacit knowledge (that which is based on experience), intuition and judgement needs to be shared. Scripted and told correctly, stories are quickly internalised and effortlessly remembered.

 

Why Is This Important?

Business storytelling is particularly important today because:

  1. Information overload: In today’s era of information overload, it has become increasingly challenging to retain learning materials and messages. Stories provide a powerful antidote to this problem by capturing attention, engaging emotions and making information more memorable.
  2. Multicultural and multigenerational workplaces: With workplaces becoming more diverse, the transfer of implicit, cultural knowledge between individuals is crucial. Stories bridge cultural gaps, facilitate understanding and strengthen alignment among employees from different backgrounds; fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose.
  3. Transient workforce and knowledge transfer: Today’s workforce is characterized by frequent role changes and mobility. This poses challenges in terms of knowledge transfer, continuity and alignment. Stories become vital tools for effectively conveying knowledge, training new employees, and ensuring smooth succession planning.
  4. Organizational values and culture: To attract and retain top talent, companies must effectively communicate their values and culture. Stories offer a compelling and authentic means to convey these messages, allowing recruits to connect emotionally with the organization’s mission and vision.

Conclusions

In conclusion, the power of business storytelling cannot be overstated. Stories have a profound impact, align individuals around a common purpose and make information more memorable. By harnessing the art of storytelling, businesses can captivate their audience, inspire action and forge lasting connections in an increasingly fast-paced and information-saturated world.

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References

Sabatinelli, D., Lang, P. J., Bradley, M. M., & Flaisch, T. (2006). The neural basis of narrative imagery: Emotion and action. In Progress in Brain Research (Vol. 156, pp. 93–103). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0079-6123(06)56005-4

2 Zak, P. J. (2014, October 28). Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling

3 Monarth, H. (2014). The irresistible power of storytelling as a strategic business tool. Harvard business review, 11, 250-256. https://ncwwi.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/The-Irresistible-Power-of-Storytelling-as-a-Strategic-Business-Tool.pdf

4 Stallen, M., De Dreu, C. K. W., Shalvi, S., Smidts, A., & Sanfey, A. G. (2012). The Herding Hormone: Oxytocin Stimulates In-Group Conformity. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1288–1292. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612446026

5 Camilleri, T., Rockey, S., & Dunbar, R. (2023). The Social Brain: The Psychology of Successful Groups. Cornerstone Press.

6 Sousa, V. (2021). Storytelling and retromarketing: Strengthening brand communication. Redmarka. Revista de Marketing Aplicado, 25(2), 44–62. https://doi.org/10.17979/redma.2021.25.2.8752

7 Cowan, N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How Is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277

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