For over 40,000 years we’ve been telling each other stories to make sense of the world –with ancient cave walls frequently offering a more captivating canvas than our slide equivalent today. Character-driven stories, particularly when there is a tension in the narrative, produce oxytocin in our brains, which enhances our empathy and connection to others. Moreover, we are wired to remember the details of stories, enabling us to carry them forward and apply them to our own lives.

However, there is a caveat. While we know stories work, just telling them isn’t enough. Reciting them in some slick, inauthentic way can actually corrode trust, which is essential if the story is to have enduring impact and separate itself from fiction.

In fact, I believe there are three practices that are far more important than the actual storytelling: story listening, story training and story doing.

Let’s start with listening. Fundamental leadership capabilities include being curious, asking questions of yourself and others, and seeking a diversity of perspectives. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of our audience and ask: “What’s their problem that I can help solve?” For example, using mobile phones, companies like Marks & Spencer are engaging with factory workers in places like China to gain a better understanding of their working conditions.

Secondly, we need to develop our story muscles with training. This means that like any workout, we need to do it regularly. Again we start with listening; start by speaking to the people in your business. It amazes me how many leadership teams have never shared the reasons why they joined the company. We need to start with the ‘why’ and remind people of the organisation’s founding story so that employees and customers can connect with it.

Companies like Accenture and Adidas are investing in storytelling training for hundreds of their employees. In particular, they are trying to cure the PowerPoint epidemic that is stultifying storytelling in so many companies. They are not alone. In his 2018 annual letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos repeated his rule that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings. He has replaced it with ‘narrative structure’ memos. Social.Cut, unsplash.com

Last but not least, we need to move from telling to doing. Story doing organisations understand they have a quest, a higher purpose in the world and convey their narrative through innovative action, for example:

– TOMS committed to producing one third of their Giving Shoes in the countries where they donate them, such as Ethiopia and India. Local production helps to develop industry and build sustainable futures.

– BNP Paribas’ asset management business, one of the largest in Europe worth €399bn, launched an ambitious plan to help accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy. This included divesting in coal and asking every single company it invests in to demonstrate how it’s working towards to the Paris Climate Agreement.

– Patagonia has a digital platform that connects customers with local grassroots organizations working to save the planet. The platform helps customers learn more about local environmental issues and how to get involved. They have donated over $89m in cash to thousands of community-based groups that are working to create positive change for the planet in their own backyards.

Stories have the power to bind us to what we value and where we are trying to go. As Alex Evans describes in The Myth Gap, we need to find new deeper stories that will create ‘a larger us’ as opposed to a ‘them and us’, ‘a longer now’ that enables us to think and act for the long-term, and a different version of the good life that’s predicated on quality rather than growth.

The good news is that we are seeing stories of hope and action. Powerful examples of storytelling and story doing are coming from unexpected places. The Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who told world leaders “You are never too small to make a difference” has inspired a global civil disobedience movement and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Brand-driven companies are also using their power as storytellers to deliver cut-through campaigns that have social impact such as P&G’s Like a Girl. And, story experts who say that it’s tough to tell a tight emotional story about climate, should take a lesson out of the late ’s book. The first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement, summed it up in 20 seconds: ‘It’s very important that we persuade governments and businesses that the environment is not an issue for tomorrow, it’s an issue for today. It is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. The environment is everyday. And we can’t live without these things.’

Story enables us to better understand complexity and our inter-connectiveness. We need to build bridges from today’s reality to tomorrow’s possibilities. Stories can help business create the future we need.

So remember, there’s more to story than just telling. The best storytellers start with listening, training and then, most importantly doing. Recent research shows that story doing companies out-perform storytelling ones. So what’s the story doing that your brand is going to inspire?

Editor’s Note:

This article was edited from original article in Wolf & Player Changemaker magazine​

Zoë specialises in leadership and storytelling. She is a fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and head tutor of its High Impact Leadership course. She teaches storytelling to businesses globally. Follow Zoë on Twitter: @zoearden

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