Why storytelling works.

We are natural storytellers.

From ancient times we’ve sat around campfires sharing our experiences, we’ve read bedtime stories to our children and we have gossiped over the garden fence. It comes easier to some than others, but it’s how we communicate. There are shelves of business manuals on the topic, and enough TED Talks to last you until Christmas!

Earlier this year Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and founder, reminded his leadership team that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings. Jeff is joined by other industry leaders including Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Bob Keillor who do not use bullet points as they have realised the power of storytelling and the positive change it can bring to an organisation.  I met with Bob Keillor at an event in Aberdeen in the very early days of CommsBank. His presentation was memorable because his story was compelling and something I could relate to. If I was to ask you to tell me about your favourite holiday destination, or your most memorable day at work or the proudest moment as a parent, you will tell me a story not provide a list of bullet points.  Stories inspire you, and those around you.

If I was to ask you to tell me about your favourite holiday destination, or your most memorable day at work or the proudest moment as a parent, you will tell me a story not provide a list of bullet points.

I’m currently reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.  This well-known book written in the 1990s was pivotal in understanding emotional intelligence and why it is just as important as IQ. The book takes a detailed but not overly scientific look at our brain. Understanding how your amygdala works with your neocortex is not a topic I thought I would very find fascinating being more of an English and Drama student than a Science and Maths whizz! But the books real life stories bring to life something I have always known to be true.

As detailed in Goleman’s book, the most primitive root in our brain is the brainstem that emerges from the emotional centre of the brain.  The thinking part of the brain, the neocortex, formed millions of years later.  Being ‘head over heels in love’ or ‘recoiling in dread’ is an emotional response, an instinct and something you can’t quite explain. Telling a good story taps into that.

In my recent blog, “The Trees are Talking, are you?”, I reflected on a book by Peter Wohlleben that shared his belief that trees communicate with each other to the benefit of the entire forest. His work is criticised by many academics, preferring a scientific evidence that trees emit distress chemicals with no intention to warn, and are not in fact communicating anything.  Whilst I do not disagree, Wohlleben’s storytelling had me hooked. His compelling narrative really made me think. If his desire was to get a wider audience to think about the importance of a sustainable forest, he nailed it, more so than any scientific paper would have, for me at least.  Wohlleben’s first priority was to not be boring, so he used emotional storytelling techniques. His trees cry out with thirst, they panic and gamble and mourn. They talk, suckle and make mischief. If these words were framed in quotation marks, to indicate a stretchy metaphorical meaning, he would probably escape most of the criticism. But Wohlleben doesn’t bother with quotation marks, because that would break the spell of his prose. He is the spokesperson of the trees.

His trees cry out with thirst, they panic and gamble and mourn. They talk, suckle and make mischief.

Adopting a storytelling approach is powerful.  As humans, we are emotional beings, and for many people reading scientific language is extremely boring.  Marine conservation has been an important issue for decades but it catapulted to the forefront of our social conscious, reflected in news headlines and numerous marketing campaigns, following the Blue Planet documentary earlier this year by the wonderful David Attenburgh.  Such is the power of storytelling.

What’s your story?  How are you going to tell it?

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