5 minute read 19 Jul 2021
A woman talking in front of a crowd

How a powerful story can inspire people to change

By Natalie Benjamin

Senior Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Passionate about all aspects of people performance. Senior Manager, EY Lane4 Professional Services Limited for the national governing body of swimming. Former international athlete.

5 minute read 19 Jul 2021

Storytelling is one of the most powerful and valuable skills a leader can have.

In brief
  • People are wired to respond emotionally to change, therefore stories can help coherently communicate the narrative for change.
  • When listening to stories, our brains release oxytocin which makes audiences more compassionate.
  • Leaders who deliver compelling stories make them catchy, impactful, authentic and simple. 

In times of great organisational transformation, storytelling can be a leader’s most powerful communication tool. This article explores the psychology of stories and how you can harness their power for leading transformational change in your organisation.

As a leader, it’s highly likely that your people are sharing stories about your leadership, your handling of the change and about the organisation itself. You may not like it, but it will be happening.

People are wired to respond emotionally to any kind of disruption, and in the absence of coherent and well-communicated storytelling from leadership, it is natural for narratives to be made up.

Instead of letting these ‘corridor’ stories influence people’s perceptions, leaders can take ownership of the ‘change story’ themselves by crafting an authentic narrative that shifts hearts and minds in the direction you are taking the organisation.

With a story, you can spark action and inspire people to join and trust you. It can also get them to do the work of spreading your message about the big changes your organisation is making, such as a culture change, a new leader, a rebrand or even a restructure.

A brilliant example of a leadership speech, using a story, is Barack Obama’s “Fired up, ready to go” speech. Obama’s story starts with a small event about himself and ends with a rallying call to change the world together. He turns a small idea into a big vision, starting with “I” and finishing with “we”.

Another excellent example of using personal stories which promote a social message is this TED Talk by Susan Cain, author of Quiet Revolution. Cain is on a mission ‘to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all’.

For a powerful reality check, and world-class example of using personal experience to influence change, consider Malala Yousafzai. At 15, Malala survived an attempted Taliban assassination in Pakistan, and has gone on to campaign and speak on the world’s stage for girls’ rights everywhere.

The neuroscience behind storytelling

Humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, which means our brains are hardwired to engage with the narratives we read and hear. This makes storytelling extremely effective when used with purpose and a clear direction.

Paul J Zak, director of the [US] Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, discovered that when an audience listens to a compelling, character-driven story containing a dramatic arc, the brain releases oxytocin — the ‘love’ neurochemical — which makes the audience more generous, compassionate and trustworthy.

Based on his research, Zak says “stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the [listener’s] brain, and thus are better remembered than simply stating a set of facts.” He advises that. “stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next.”

This means that even if your audience starts out as critical, by using a storytelling technique, you can shift your audience’s mood into empathy, cooperation and support of your message.

Not everyone is born with the natural charisma or command of Barack Obama, or had the life-altering experience of Malala Yousafzai, but you do have the power to craft and share an authentically crafted story yourself. You can then use this story to affect the change you want to see in your organisation.

How to craft a story as a business leader

  1. Understand why you’re sharing the story
    Approach creating your story strategically. This means getting clear on the business objective, e.g. to encourage conversation between people and leaders.

  2. Decide your message
    The message your story send is core to the form it should take. If you want listeners to hear you say “your view is important to me: I want to hear what you’ve got to say” the you need to keep that message in focus during the creative phase.

  3. Make it catchy
    Turn the message into a simple statement that will be repeated. Get your people behind the message and they will repeat this statement to others, creating a ripple effect throughout your organisation.

  4. Know your audience
    Focus on who you are trying to reach. Use the language they use and consider what is important to them. If your story feels too remote from your people, they won’t engage.

  5. Visualise the impact
    Be purposeful about the mood and response you want to elicit from your people.

  6. Authenticity is the key to good storytelling
    It is a myth that vulnerability weakens your status. Authentic storytelling comes from personal experience and some of the best storytellers share vulnerable moments in their lives. This helps their audience connect to them.

    Just look at John Chambers on his dyslexia and Steve Jobs about the permanent separation from his mother as a baby and later his journey with pancreatic cancer. Take a tour through your past to choose some key events or people in your life that taught you something, helped you overcome a barrier or even transformed you. It’s ok to mention an imperfection or setback; don’t be afraid to share these if they serve your story’s message.

  7. Use characters
    We’re exposed to stories all the time, so try to capture elements of storytelling that will feel familiar to your audience. Use characters like you would find in a novel and give your story a dramatic arc to build tension and keep people’s attention. The best stories take the audience into the character’s world.

  8. Make your audience the hero
    You may have heard of the ‘hero’s journey’ as a storytelling technique. A hero goes on an adventure, hits a crisis, wins a victory and transforms as a result. Inspire your people to join you by making your audience the hero, not you (even though you still feature as a central character). This is fundamental.

  9. Keep your story simple
    Less is more. Only include detail if it adds to the dramatic tension.

  10. Once you’ve got your story: practice, practice, practice Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has formed part of a story.2 So, dedicate yourself to the art of storytelling if you truly want to bring people with you.

Summary

Storytelling can inspire people to want to change, but only if the story connects with them emotionally. Leaders who are looking to guide their organisation through change would be wise to fine tune their ability to tell authentic and compelling stories if they want their messages to be truly heard and engaged with.

About this article

By Natalie Benjamin

Senior Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Passionate about all aspects of people performance. Senior Manager, EY Lane4 Professional Services Limited for the national governing body of swimming. Former international athlete.