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Art meets science

Art meets science

How the science behind storytelling leads to more powerful corporate engagement

Jo Aidroos | April 3, 2015

People forget what you say, they forget what you do, but they don’t forget how you make them feel. Feelings create memories that generate long lasting and powerful impressions on those listening to you, and storytelling has become a formidable "corporate tool" in creating feelings of engagement in the workplace.

Leaders are encouraged to tell a story so that they can become more "real" to their audience. They are advised to weave struggles and personal failures into their stories.

The science behind storytelling helps us to understand why storytelling has stood the test of time as well as giving us insight into why storytelling can be so effective in the modern business world. We can take what we know about the brain and use it to help us generate corporate memories, persuasion and action.

Storytelling isn’t new

There is nothing new about storytelling. The earliest records are the pictures found in caves (our modern day equivalent is a flat screen), which are believed to be over 35,000 years old.

We spend a lot of our childhoods making up stories and living in Neverland. We learn through bedtime stories, fairy tales and family sagas passed down through the generations. Even when we are asleep, our minds are busily addicted to subconscious stories. Stories are always with us and they touch everyone.

The brain is amazing

When compelling leaders use storytelling, they trigger old, often forgotten connections in our brains. We now know a lot about which parts of our brain perform which functions. The prefrontal cortex looks after our logical processing. The temporal lobe controls our memories and emotional responses. The Reticular Activating System (RAS) makes decisions as to what to pay attention to and what to discard, and the subconscious is the nuclear power plant of the brain.

Stories tap into all these parts of our brains but in particular they trigger the emotions that we had as a child and it sparks our interest, curiosity and optimism.

This in turn invokes a sense of trust, and when we use story to convey ourselves as people who have normal lives outside the corporate setting with the same challenges as others in the room, we increase the level of empathy in the story.

The hard wiring

Our brains are not hard-wired to retain facts and understand logic. They are wired to retain and understand stories. As humans we feel first and think second.

MRI scans now show evidence that we form deep emotional connections with stories. Stories are remembered long after the facts have been forgotten. Not only are the language processing parts of our brains in action, but we also find that our brains feel as if we are participating in the story ourselves. So we can use this to tell a story that is not just engaging, but one that can actually get your audience to think about a situation differently. We can use our story to activate ideas, thoughts and emotions in our listener’s brain, which can be especially powerful when we already know their interests and triggers. Taken to its extreme, the storyteller and the listener start to synchronise.

Creating and feeding memories

To create and feed memory and create lasting impact we need to trigger the sensory receptors in our brains. We now know that these fire when we use metaphors such as your writing is like salt on pancakes: After one bite I’ve had enough, and your blog stands out like a candle in the darkness.

These bypass rationality and create a visual, emotional reaction. You screw up your face and go yuck, and you are drawn to the flame. You are curious and interested in finding out more.

Hitting the storytelling jackpot

Science helps us understand that when we blend a great story that triggers emotion and feeling with more analytical data-based information, we hit the corporate storytelling jackpot. Now we are engaging our audience with the total brain and we have emotion, excitement, fear, imagination and credibility all blended together.

We are able to move people to action and get stuff done.

And so…

Next time you are about to attend a meeting, give a presentation, or galvanise your team into action, don’t just reach for the same methods you have used until now. Dare to disrupt and tell your audience a story. Here’s an example:

A commercial director goes into the monthly board meeting for a pitch to implement a new CRM system. He has done a lot of thinking about how he can position the project with his fellow board members and has a detailed business case showing rapid ROI and "feels" as if he should have an easy ride. But he remembers how six months ago the CFO was seeking investment in new analytics software, and despite the numbers stacking up, their CEO said "No. Not without a business case that explains how it is going to make life easier for me.” He decides that the spread sheets can be there to support his case, but that he will open his presentation with a story: "Imagine a world where you are on the front foot in every meeting. Where you know who’s talked to who and what is selling in this market place." Fifteen minutes into the meeting he has the CEO on his side and the green light to start his project.

He’s hit the storytelling jackpot and his life (and project) will be easier as a result.

Ramp up your engagement

So, the next time you engage with your employees try to:

  • Generate emotion through stories and you will be remembered. We feel first and think second.
  • Use an optimum blend of fact and fantasy to create a story to resonate with a varied audience.
  • Stimulate a curious brain using metaphors.

You will become astounded and might well get addicted to storytelling.

Jo Aidroos is no longer with Slalom.

Jo Aidroos

Jo Aidroos leads Slalom’s Organisational Effectiveness Practice in London. An engineer by qualification, an early technologist, and now a passionate practitioner putting people at the heart of every organisation.


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