Corporate Storytelling – Learn the Science, Capture the Power, Make an Impact

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The Book Thief, a film directed by John Lee Hancock, mesmerized me from the start. The story recounts how words and books transformed Liesel’s world during and after the horrors of WWII. I am known for being unable to sit still for more than 45 minutes, yet this story kept me spellbound until the lights came up.

Scene from movie 'The Book Thief'

As I left the theater, I wanted to bring that power of stories to the business world.

That’s possible with corporate storytelling—the practice of telling stories in the corporate environment to strengthen company culture, provide inspiration AND define organizational values.

Storytelling is so engrained in the human experience that personal stories and gossip make up 65% of conversation. This isn’t new – cave paintings started 27,000 years ago. For that long, our species has been sharing stories. Stories are a constant and powerful part of our DNA.

The Science Behind Storytelling

It turns out the impact of storytelling isn’t arbitrary.

Research shows that different parts of the brain are activated when listening to presentations or stories. If someone tells you a story about running a marathon, the part of the brain that experiences motion is activated. If someone shares the narrative of a harrowing car accident, the part of the brain that experiences distress is activated.

This means that telling a story can synchronize the brain of the speaker and the listener. The speaker explains running on hot pavement with bare feet, and the listener’s brain experiences the same stimulation in the same areas of the brain as the speaker explaining it. See how powerful stories can be?

Experiment: Monitor the Personal Impact of a Story

Let’s do an experiment. Watch this short six minute video created by Paul Zak that shows what happens to the brain when hearing or watching a story. You may want to grab a tissue, as the first few minutes of this story are quite touching.

What was your response to the story? Did it match with the research?

Human beings communicate along the lines of cause and effect. Since stories also operate on this principal, the human brain can more easily understand the message. Our minds just don’t think naturally in bullet points and pie charts. I’d have to double check, but I don’t think there were any pivot charts outlined in cave paintings!

How Can Leaders Use the Power of Storytelling?

So as a leader, how can you use the power of storytelling? As you craft a presentation or discussion, think about what you want your audience to experience and feel.

Let’s say there has been unhealthy interdepartmental competition; consequently, attrition increased and business opportunities have been lost. Your story leads the audience through each team and their failures, and how frustrating it is as a leader to watch your business suffer due to these personal differences. You tell them how angry you are, and what that anger feels like. You may feel you are going to instigate change by expressing your disappointments and frustrations. However, you are also going to build employee negativity and frustration. Does this result meet your desired outcome?

Instead, consider explaining how proud you are of your teams. What if you began by describing how excited you were when you first took your position, and how honored you felt to be able to lead such competent and engaged teams? Then you move on to a story about working with teams that don’t realize how competitive they’ve become until it’s too late. You next share a few experiences in your own professional life where you had to learn about communication and cooperation the hard way. Finally, let them know you believe in them and want to help bring back the high performers you know they are—the inspiring people you met when you first joined the organization. With this type of story, you have a much higher chance of instigating change in your organization.

With this example, you have the opportunity to provide your listeners with a journey toward positive feelings and transformation. Our brains our just wired this way; it’s science. Leveraging that fact provides a powerful opportunity for change—in your organization and in the world.

So how do you do it? In our next post, will use insight from Jessica Robinson, accomplished writer, storyteller and founder of Better Said Than Done, to explore how to create an effective and engaging corporate story.

In the meantime, have you witnessed transformation after the presentation of a powerful story? Maybe it was at a conference, retreat, in the classroom or even at home. Share your story with us in the comment section below, or send me an  email. Also, find me on Twitter with any questions or reactions to the science behind corporate storytelling.

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  1. Al Cotton
    July 21, 2014

    I have experienced exactly what you describe, but never had a theory to explain it. THank you.

    • Loehr
      July 24, 2014

      You’re very welcome, Al!

  2. Peggy
    July 23, 2014

    Thank you Anne – I’ve felt the power of stories myself, but the insights you shared through the brain chemistry video were enlightening. Connecting it to leadership & team motivation is huge. I’ve had some business conversations when I’ve suggested using a story to connect (instead of facts on a powerpoint slide) and they misunderstand me to suggest “making up a story” equating it to manipulating with a lie. Ugh. Now I have your post to explain what I meant. #Appreciation

    • Loehr
      July 24, 2014

      Hi Peggy. So glad you can use this post to backup the fact that storytelling is a great business tool. I did wonder if readers might think I was suggesting making up fictional stories about their lives in order to influence an organization. As you know, that’s not what this is about at all! Thank you for your comment.


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