Four Reasons why Storytelling is a compelling way of communicating

Zoe Hanks

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…. Storytelling has been around probably just as long as the human race. Here’s how it can help your business:

Think about our early ancestors sat in their caves with their fingers as paintbrushes and animal droppings made into a paste, ready to paint the inside of their dwellings. Highly unlikely that the thought foremost in their mind was “let’s share some information”. What about generation’s later, in Tudor times? Did Shakespeare gather everyone round, ready to present his audience with statistics and results? No, of course not. It was all about the stories to be told.

Storytelling was, and still is, a really great way to create a level of engagement that goes way above and beyond sharing facts. It can develop human connections, create positive associations and build relationships. In a world where facts, figures and statistics are hurled at us hundreds of times a day, storytelling can cut straight through all that clutter. Over generations it has become a timeless human tradition that we are almost wired up for – the ability to communicate through and learn from stories.

Over the years, many of us have lost the art of telling a good story. We are technology rich and time poor, which seems to have created a ‘death by PowerPoint’ culture that we are struggling to get out of – presentations filled with ‘bullet-points’ and ‘key take-aways’ – designed to be quickly absorbed by the reader, but forgotten about almost as soon as they leave the room.

Storytelling, in any business, I believe is crucial, but in sustainability and corporate responsibility circles – I believe is even more important. Let’s face it – sustainability isn’t sexy. For every one of us that believes sustainability has a very well-deserved place around the boardroom table, there are several others that just don’t get it. It’s these people that facts and figures, for whatever reason, just do not resonate with. And it is therefore these people that need to be engaged with on a whole new level.

In my opinion, there are 4 reasons why storytelling is a compelling way of communicating:

1. Stories make you human

None of us are fallible, and that includes organisations too. I don’t want to read a Sustainability or Corporate Responsibility Report that is full of lots of ‘look how amazing we are’ soundbites. I want to see that, like me, organisations are on a journey of self-improvement. I want to know where they started out, what they have learnt along the way, what they have found they are really good at but; also what their weak points are, and how they are making steps towards improving them. For me, organisations that sound too good to be true probably are.

2. Stories are memorable

A really good story has the ability to stick in a Person’s mind long after they have heard it. An organisation who I believe are amongst the best at storytelling are The Eden Project. They employ a team of storytellers, or as they call them ‘Pollinators’, whose role it is to roam the site and facilitate conversations with adults and children alike through storytelling. One of their pollination team is a woman in her 60’s, dressed as a bag lady. She wanders through the site with her trolley and plastic bags, rifling through bins and wandering up to groups of people – just standing in their space not saying a word. The British stiff upper lip can find this quite disarming, but this is when the magic really starts to happen – she will start a seemingly innocent conversation that soon turns into a story or fable – engaging those around her and drawing in crowds of passing people – an experience so powerful that it takes a while for the effects to wear off.

3. Stories can be shared

Because stories are so memorable, this makes them really easy to be shared and recounted in the future. By arming your audience with a strong story, it will be much easier for them to share with their networks, meaning they are effectively doing your sales and marketing for you. Arguably, word of mouth travels faster, further and with more resonance than many other types of communication, so why not exploit and harness this to your benefit?

4. Stories inspire

Creating a compelling story cannot fail to inspire people. Whether you want to inspire action, a change in behaviour or simply elevate a connection with your organisation – powerful stories can do all of this. I find the best stories that have a sustainability or corporate responsibility angle, are not those where it has been explicitly picked out as a separate activity – more that it is a story about something really engaging and emotive and sustainability just happens to be a part of that. I call this ‘the green thread’ – a clear theme that runs through the fabric of what you are communicating but cannot be unpicked or used separately. Take the Pollinators for example, one of the stories that they tell is about The Lorax, the guardian of a forest of beautiful truffula trees which are chopped down by the greedy once-ler, meaning the animals that depend on the trees for food and shelter have to move away. This story clearly has a clear environmental message – but that is almost incidental to the actual fabric of the story itself.

The fact is, people buy from people, so by sharing your cause, your journey and your human traits, you will create a positive association in the hearts and minds of your stakeholders which will differentiate you in a way that is difficult for your competitors to replicate.

And we all lived happily ever after…

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