Storytelling Basics

Storytelling is the activity of telling stories, which passes information and knowledge on in the form of motifs, symbols, metaphors. By evoking emotions when telling stories, tension, enthusiasm, and a bond are created that bare facts and figures cannot create. The story connects facts and emotions and makes communication effective. Storytelling is used in business, including marketing, public relations, recruitment, the workplace, and events.
14 mins read

Storytelling: in brief

Storytelling is the activity of telling stories, with which information and knowledge is passed on in the form of motifs, symbols, metaphors.

By evoking emotions when telling stories, tension, enthusiasm and a bond is created that bare facts and figures cannot create. The story connects facts and emotions and makes communication effective.

Storytelling is used in business, including marketing, public relations, recruitment, the workplace and events.

Full explanation

Storytelling is the activity of telling stories. Storytelling has many applications. It is used to pass on knowledge, opinions or information in presentations, meetings, trainings, in sales promotion but also in communicating the company's purpose and values. It is further used to create visions of the future, to solve problems or conflicts. Experiences are easier to share or interpret through stories.

A story helps to present and convey information as simply as possible. Through the effect of emotions, the messages remain longer in the audience's memory. When telling stories, larger areas in the human brain are activated, as is the case with other sensory experiences. The coupling of "information" with "emotions" ensures that the information is better absorbed and remembered.

The stories can be real or fictional.

Human life is rooted in stories. People construct their world view and memories in the form of stories. Stories have the power to bridge cultural, linguistic and age-related barriers. They are used to convey ethics, values and norms.

Storytelling refers to various forms, such as the oral telling of stories, or forms in other media or environments. For example, stories are told in texts, pictures or videos, as in printed matter or on the Internet. Another form is an installation, like a glass bakery.

Stories can be very short, or many pages of text. A well-known short example is the goal formulated by John F Kennedy in 1961: Before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

Storytelling originated at the campfires of our ancestors. It was practiced before writing [1]. The earliest forms of storytelling were usually oral, combined with gestures and facial expressions. Some archaeologists believe that rock painting was not only part of religious rituals, but also served as a form of storytelling for many ancient cultures.

Storytelling in business life

In business, persuasion is at the heart of many activities. Customers need to be convinced to buy your company's products or services, employees and colleagues to support a new strategic plan or reorganization, investors need to be convinced to buy (or not to sell) stock or shares, and partners to sign the next deal.

The standard method of persuasion is fact-based rhetoric. There are two problems with this rhetoric. First, the people you talk to have their own views, statistics and experience. As you try to convince them, they argue with you in their minds. Secondly, if you manage to convince them, you have only done so on an intellectual basis. That is not good enough, because people are not inspired to act solely by reason.

Storytelling combines an idea with emotion. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the narrative, but you also arouse the emotions and energy of your audience. Presenting and convincing an idea with a story requires vivid insight and skill in storytelling. Then the emotional power unfolds to be memorable.

Due to the many media channels and communication possibilities it has become quite difficult to make your voice heard. Information flows more frequently and is often short and compressed. Almost everyone has a blog, a podcast or a channel on a video platform. This has shortened the attention span for many people. It is more important to establish a connection and be remembered for a long time. This is where stories help.

How Storytelling works

The method of storytelling is not foreign to people. In every company there is informal exchange about events or stories are explicitly cultivated. Storytelling is used unconsciously or consciously.

Even if storytelling appears in various forms, the stories cause reactions in the audience.

it attracts attention:

a good story focuses the audience in the first few seconds. This happens through relevance, unexpected information, details or identification with the hero in the story. In an area of the brain (amygdala), the information is checked for novelty and danger within seconds. If the brain detects a hint of potential danger or uncertainty, the focus remains on the subject until it is resolved.

it arouses emotions:

A good story evokes emotions. Without emotions, it is just a sober story in the style of a factual report. Emotions arise from a challenge, a special situation or a problem for the hero in the story. Depending on the conclusion the story takes, a positive or negative feeling remains with the audience. Successful and positive are stories that reinforce the philosophy of companies, such as "sustainable energy" for an e-car manufacturer or "just do it" for a sports goods manufacturer.

The emotions activate larger areas in the brain. Thus, the information conveyed in the story has a better chance of being remembered. Almost everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. This was a very emotional day for many.

it inspires:

A good story and good storytelling inspires the audience. With a little luck, the enthusiasm is so great that the story is spread further orally or electronically on the Internet. Awakening enthusiasm and passion plays a major role if you want to move people or encourage them to learn. Enthusiasm is contagious.

it connects:

By stirring emotions and maintaining attention for a longer period of time, a connection is created between the storyteller and the audience. Usually, the audience recognizes the storyteller's values, beliefs and principles and thus has the chance to connect with him or her better. For example, if articles in magazines, websites and films are entertaining or informative, the audience will return regularly.

Successful storytelling works through these four qualities. The audience identifies with the hero and the story, and can more easily absorb, remember or pass on the information.

The forms of storytelling

Storytelling occurs in many forms, media and channels.

Orally:

The boss's speech, a presentation at a conference or webinar. Incorporate one or more stories, as anecdotes, to clarify the main point, etc. With a little passion, the attention will be as sure as in a ted talk.

In writing:

Books, magazines, social media are full of stories. In books and magazines you see them immediately, in social media they compete with facts, announcements, thank you notes or pure entertainment and often get lost. But the potential is great.

A longer book allows the reader to imagine details in their own way. He becomes unconsciously a committed co-author of the story.

Picture:

A picture can also contain a story. At least one episode showing the hero at the moment of conflict. Usually combined with facial expressions and gestures that express emotions. But a picture can also be a word in the form of a metaphor. Something that is to be achieved, something that creates a new self-image for a group of people.

Video/Film:

Moving images have a faster effect than long texts that have to be read first. However, each film is first broken down into individual images as a storyboard. The scenes are put together later. The format is easy to consume. The moving picture is often accompanied by sounds or music, which enhances the experience.

Installations/Context:

Even though this is probably rarely mentioned in literature, I firmly believe that the environment reinforces the impression of something. Where would you spend more money on a watch, even if it's the same in both cases? In Zurich in one of the chic shops on Bahnhofstrasse or at a flea market, in November on a rainy cold day. So companies open glass factories, manufactories, to make their craftsmanship, daily effort and love of detail visible to customers. And they convey an image of true love for perfection, which the public is happy to absorb and pass on.

How is a story structured?

The structure can be presented in a simple form for all stories in 3 phases.

Phase 1 - Background: Here the hero in the story and the initial situation is described. What was at the beginning?

Phase 2 - Actions: A new circumstance creates a predicament, conflict or challenge for the hero. He has to face it and experiences an up and down in his activities.

Phase 3 - Outcome: In the end the hero succeeds (or sometimes fails). The tension is released. Phase 3 is the place for a logical argument or a call for action.

The structure can be found more or less detailed in every story. Aristotle had already referred to the three phases in dialectical rhetoric (phase 1 - ethos- the character of the hero, phase 2 - pathos, the emotional journey and phase 3 - logos, the argument) [2].

Example John F Kennedy: Man to the Moon

Although it is only a short sentence, it contains explicitly or implicitly the three phases:

Phase 1 - Background: In 1961, there was no man on the moon. But there was a race with the Russians into space. The USA threatened to lose the race.

Phase 2 - Action: A man travels to the moon

Phase 3 - Outcome: Man returns and reaches the earth safely again

 

The mythologist Joseph Campbell had designed an even more detailed structure in the 50s. This comprises twelve steps and is often called the hero's journey. The simple structure of the three phases is sufficient for business use.

However, if you are writing a novel, or want to give the story a certain length, the Heroes' Journey is the better choice. The 3 phases are included in the Heroes' Journey and are even more subdivided.

Also in business life every story is built up according to the mentioned structure of 3 phases. The telling of stories is connected with a goal to create attention or to move people to something. Therefore you should adjust the story and the aspects to the audience.

Example of storytelling in business life

GOPRO - a company history for investors

Phase 1 - Background

Nick Woodman, a passionate surfer, was looking for a way to make a movie of his passion. Professional equipment was not only too expensive. It required an extra swimmer. Existing offers from established manufacturers did not work. But many surfers would have liked to have a camera with them.

Phase 2 - Action

Nick started Woodman Labs with his own money and money borrowed from his parents. In the beginning he did everything himself and started with a 35mm film camera as product. Sales doubled every year.

Phase 3 - Outcome

In 2014, the company went public and raised almost 3 billion US dollars.

 

FujiFilm - reinvention of a company

Phase 1 - Background

The analog film business declined with the advent of digital cameras.

Phase 2 - Action

Managing Director Komori gave the more than 70,000 employees a choice: "Either you leave, or you build a bigger company with me."

He saw the many technologies that FujiFilm mastered perfectly and wanted to bring them to other markets.

Phase 3 - Result

FujiFilm has successfully conquered new areas. Among others beauty products based on antioxidants and collagen.  These are both compounds that were of great importance for film production. In the meantime, FujiFilm has 79,000 employees.

What are the elements of a good story?

Each story consists of the same elements.

  1. Purpose: What does the storyteller want to achieve with the story in the audience?
  2. Hero = Protagonist: Who is the main character in the story? Is it a person, an organization or a personified product? The audience identifies itself with the hero and sees itself in him.
  3. Tension: Challenges, conflicts, resistances, new tasks that have not yet been solved create the tension and correspondingly the emotion. Without this element the story does not work.
  4. Phases = dramaturgy: As shown in the last section, a story always unfolds in 3 phases: Background - Action - Result
  5. Resolution: At the end of a story it is advisable to give a resolution. How did the story end? The audience needs it to find inner peace again. If you withhold the resolution from the audience, don't be surprised if there are questions.

Besides that there can also be a mentor for the hero, who is backing the hero or has resources, clues, or similar for the hero to reach his goal. The mentor is usually present in longer stories (novels or movies). In business life, it can be the company that positively supports the hero.

What makes stories so unique?

Storytelling is the oldest cultural technique for conveying meaning.

A challenge forces the hero to make decisions. He automatically comes to the edge of the comfort zone. In such a situation, the true character, personality and values are revealed, which otherwise often remain hidden. And that is what makes the stories so human. You reach the heart of the listener.

Challenges and conflicts are accompanied by emotions. To describe these, storytellers like to tell about their sensory perceptions. This activates the listeners more than naked facts and figures. For example, if you sketch the picture of a cold, wet November day, you will evoke corresponding images in the audience.

The storyteller gives a deeper meaning to crude facts and individual events by embedding them in a plot. This is precisely tailored to the needs of the audience and leaves the audience moved.

Why does storytelling work?

Neuroscientists and psychologists have investigated the effect with different approaches. On the one hand, sensual words or words of movement create a strong idea of the sensory impressions and movements. It is as if the brain cannot distinguish between reality and imagination. This helps in understanding the situation.

On the other hand, chemical substances in the brain such as oxytocin were also detected. People with higher oxytocin levels trust more easily, are more generous and more empathic.

Thinking in stories helps to mentally deal with possible developments or scenarios and prepare for them. Psychologist Keith Oatley from the University of Toronto calls this flight simulator effect. Possible actions or options are already firmly anchored in the brain. In an emergency, you are better prepared and do not have to think everything through from the beginning.

Can you learn storytelling?

Actually, you don't need much. Everyone's a storyteller. This is shown by Chris Schembra, who moved many people to share stories with one question [3].

However, you can help your stories with practice and imitation. This allows for more focus on purpose, better adaptation to the audience, greater activation of different senses and easier receptivity for the audience. If you practice the passionate, almost acting performance of a story, you will leave a lasting impression on the audience. By practicing, you will become more agile, see more stories in others and can use this method for many of your own communications.

There are many role models like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Annita Roddick, Leymah Gbowee. Many of them can be found on the Internet. Or just have a look at some Ted-Talks, because most of them have a story as main part [4].

The platform fireside-stories.de helps to learn storytelling. First of all you can start with the story interview right away. With some guiding questions you will get answers that are sorted into the 3 phases of the basic structure.

Secondly, the 10weeks-Impact program is a free self-learning program for a group of 4-5 colleagues with an assignment of one hour per week. It includes small steps that are used to learn the method with support and feedback from friends or colleagues.

Thirdly, you can find inspiration in private communities or publicly available stories. As a peer for others, you give feedback, comments or ask questions and thus train your own storytelling skills.

 

What role does storytelling play in your own story?

The way we present ourselves to others usually contains a story of its own. What impression should the listener have.

I recently talked to an architect who's going to Berkeley to be a professor. He said he was thinking about how he wanted to introduce himself. What should he tell? The audience will want to know why he goes to Berkeley and not someplace else. What values should he convey to them? What does he want to achieve there? This is where his own story comes into play. It can be used as a reason for the plot (moving to Berkeley), but also to convey expectations. If he says with his own examples that he avoids repeating himself for the purpose of his own development, then he can also demand that the students follow new paths.

Another example is the founding history of an organization. It can bind an audience strongly.

Stories also serve to see one's own history from a different perspective, in order to ultimately develop it further. This is an option for action that contributes to more self-determination and self-control.

 

How will you benefit from storytelling?

Storytelling makes your communication more effective. It brings emotion into communication. It's easy to remember this from a formula. The effect of communicating facts is multiplied by emotion.

Communication = facts x emotion.

This is important if people are to be moved to actions. Employees, partners, customers, suppliers - they are all more open when they don't just hear facts and figures. Their presentations will be easier for them, they will captivate the audience with stories.

There are also other very positive effects. Taking some time to create stories means putting yourself in the audience's shoes. You might also want to exchange ideas beforehand and find out what moves the audience. You will become more aware of emotions over time. They can be their own or those of the audience. You sharpen your perception. This allows you to decide on the best reaction. You will also recognize how people deal with fear and will react positively. All in all you will sharpen empathy and emotional intelligence.

Another aspect is that storytelling is a creative process. Even if the plot is clear, you will shape the story differently depending on the audience in order to get to the point. As a result, you will increase your creative skills.

When you tell stories, the audience gets to know you better. This improves cooperation and the acceptance of your arguments. That means you convince and reach your goals faster.

Storytelling is therefore an excellent opportunity to train the soft-skills that are in high-demand.

Why does this platform exist?

As a physicist and with a degree in business administration, I have so far experienced rather the sober rational side.

In contrast, there are illogical examples, such as the story-driven market capitalization of Tesla compared to German car manufacturers.

Investors told me that in the end (even though they looked at many facts) they have to swallow residual risks and rely on gut feeling. Trust helps to do this. If you know the team or the company because they have shared stories about the challenges and their decisions, then a basic trust develops more quickly that a meaningful solution will be found even in future difficult situations.

On the other hand, storytelling outside the media and advertising is hardly ever used in business. Many told me that they don't have a story or don't know how to tell a story properly. This is where the platform helps, among other things through the story-ideation, through the story-interview and through the enabled collaboration.

The platform focuses more on the creative process in the beginning. This is the basic structure, the plot. The result is a text with optional images or an audio file. Besides the direct use in oral or written communication, there are of course other possibilities outside the platform. For example, you could have the story translated by agencies or freelancers into storyboards or videos, or have them create visuals or comics. The applications are unlimited.

Summary

Storytelling is a method for effective communication. Through emotions, they strengthen the effect of your messages. For humans, thinking in stories is a natural process, so your messages will be absorbed faster and easier and also better remembered. With stories you inspire and create trust.

Storytelling can be applied in different ways. For presentations to customers or investors, in advertising, for change processes in the organisation. Stories can be used on a wide variety of topics in business life (including start-up, innovation, brands, future, strategy, inspiration, background, leadership, customer success...).

What is there to tell about you or your company? Start now and create your first story!

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storytelling

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle

[3] https://fireside-stories.de/blog/gratitude-and-pasta-en

[4] https://hbr.org/2013/06/how-to-give-a-killer-presentation

 

strategy

I work with clients who have the courage to grow.

Dr. Holger Laabs

founder and CEO
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