A friend recently asked me to post this "white paper" I had written a few years ago on the benefits of storytelling. It was published in the 2010 International PRSA Conference periodical, where I also did a poster presentation. I also presented this at the Ferris State University College of Business Colloquium in February 2011. Enjoy!
Story: A Powerful Tool of Influence
by Patrick Bishop
“We rely on stories like we rely on air, water, sleep, and food” (Haven, 2007, p. 4).
Seriously, stories? How can story be a powerful tool of influence for public relations, particularly when the industry is striving for credibility and a seat at the executive table? In an era where the business case for public relations rules, this report will offer exceptional, credible testimony based on extensive research reviews demonstrating that the use of story is the single most powerful public relations tactic for influencing values, behavior, corporate culture, and reputation.
Words often fail. Even as expert, ethical communicators, our powers of persuasion are sometimes viewed as manipulation. Other times, our attempts to convince are met with skepticism (Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, & Switzler, 2008). The PR professional should be the right-hand person of the president or CEO, consulting him or her on the right course of action based in high ethical standards and public expectations (Cobb, 2008). That said, there is significant discussion in the field of PR that there are not enough PR practitioners in top management (Cobb, 2008). This being the case, most PR professionals do not have the luxury of direct authority and therefore, even when seated at the executive table, must rely on indirect leadership skills. Stephen R. Covey had it right when he stated that in order to gain a person’s head and hand, we must first capture his or her heart (1989). The best method for doing this is through the use of vibrant story. Author Annette Simmons (2001) says it best, “You do not need a position of formal leadership when you know the power of story” (p. 29).
Before I present the overwhelming evidence for this premise, I will address a few of the misconceptions of storytelling and provide a clear definition of what story is. After which, I will offer a brief historical perspective on storytelling, followed by discussions on brain physiology, the credibility of story as a resource, the over-arching benefits of story, and concluding thoughts.
The Untold Story
Chances are, when you read the statement that stories are a profound tool of influence you likely had one of two reactions: (1) that’s a bunch of who-ha, or (2) I want to believe, but how can it be true? These are natural, implicit reactions to story, but where does this skepticism originate from and is it justified? Let me address these doubts head on. First I will present three common arguments against story. Then I will offer a clear definition of story, followed by the evidence that debunks these arguments.
Argument #1: stories are lies. This concern is especially alarming to PR practitioners who strive to be transparent and truthful. We tell bedtime stories to children before saying goodnight, so it is difficult to take storytelling seriously in today’s sophisticated business environment. At some level, stories have been associated with make-believe, myth, legend, and fiction. Like losing our belief in Sana Claus, we are conditioned to believe that stories are false or, at best, unrealistic whimsy having little to do with the real-world of profit-and-loss statements (Haven, 2007).
Argument #2: stories are for children. Similar to the above scenario, we not only believe stories are false, naïve, or impractical, most people believe that stories are for children. In his well-known 2006 speech at TED, Sir Ken Robinson talks about the education of children and how we slowly squeeze creativity out of people. As children outgrow their childish ways, storytelling is discarded and left behind as a sign of immaturity. It seems, big boys and girls don’t tell stories.
Argument #3: stories are boring. We have all been in meetings when someone attempts to tell a story and he or she drones on about their life and priorities. Author and storyteller Dan Yashinsky (2004) says, “We humans have limited patience with the display of somebody else’s life on a screen, but we find our own lives infinitely fascinating” (p. 155). Some people feel the need to add all the minutia of detail and simply talk too much. Regarding the storyteller, Yashinsky humorously understates that sometimes, “They leave too little unknown” (p. 157).
A Definition: stories are…? What is story? It turns out most people have a poor idea of what story is. First, we have no other word besides story for the wide variety and diversity of subcategories of narrative (Haven, 2007). This means that everything in the narrative category becomes “story” in our dialogue, adding significant confusion to this discussion. Additionally, as you will see from the research review later, we are surrounded by story, like a fish surrounded by water, and therefore, we take it for granted. For the purpose of this paper, I generally adopt the intricately researched definition of story by Kendall Haven (2007): “A detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal” (p. 79). If you want the detailed explanation of why this is the best definition of story, I highly recommend his book (see references).
The real story. Stories are not lies. “Story is not the information, the content. Story is a way of structuring information…” (Haven, 2007). Story is a process and can be thought of as the skeleton with our words providing the flesh. Simmons says that story is truth with transparent meaning, quite the opposite of lies. She states that, “Story doesn’t grab power. Story creates power” (p. 29). Consider this condensed story of three men working at a construction site. Each man is asked in turn, what are you doing? The first man replies, “I am laying brick.” The second man states, “I am building a wall.” The third man answers, “I am building a cathedral!” This story illustrates the power of vision and inspiration much better than simply talking about vision and inspiration. As Simmons puts it, story is less direct, more gracious, prompts less resistance, and is true with a capital “T.”
The real story. Stories are not just for children. The research in the following sections will overwhelmingly demonstrate that our brains are hardwired for story. Think about how people perk up when someone says, “Listen to this story.” However, because society has deemed story as a children’s resource, “…we set aside the most powerful communications and teaching tool available to humans and then idly wonder why our efforts to communicate and to teach concepts, ideas, beliefs, values, attitudes, and facts do not succeed” (Haven, 2007, p. 17). Influential leaders use story to communicate values. Consider the story told by retailer Nordstrom’s illustrating exceptional customer service by the employee who warms customer’s cars while they finish shopping. You can say, “we provide excellent customer service,” but the story clearly illustrates the caring and desire to go above and beyond.
Stories are not boring; okay, but maybe the storyteller is. The question is one of focus: who is the story for? Many people make the mistake that storytelling is an act, presentation, or play. As Yashinsky says, “It is more important for the listener to see the story than to see you” (p. 151). Yashinsky goes so far as to state that actors get in the way of story. A story must come through the teller without ego; authenticity must shine through. In addition to putting the focus on story, it is important to fully understand the previously offered definition of story in order to fully engage the process. Leaving out important qualities such as character description, goals, struggles, and outcome will dampen story results.
Storytelling precedes history; it is literally prehistoric. Scientists agree that about 40,000 years ago, our ancestors first began to draw pictures on cave walls (Haugen, 2001). However, it is believed that language came much sooner, perhaps as early as a million years ago. In fact, many paleontologists believe the use of language is a major contributing factor for our ancestor’s brain growth over a relatively short historical time period; more than a 33% increase (Baker, 2003). There is even recent research indicating that the use of stories predates language (Haven, 2007).
Early use of verbal and non-verbal language most likely served as a warning against danger. Over a great span of time, families formed tribes and civilization transitioned from pre-historic to the modern era. By then, storytelling was at the heart of the community as the primary mode of communication.
“…wherever simple men were together relating the experiences of vigorous days, there would be found someone whose adventures were always the pleasantest to hear, whose deeds were the most marvelous, whose realistic details the most varied” (Ransome, 1909, p. 7). Often, according to story historian and author Arthur Ransome, the storyteller would grow in stature “to become the medicine man of his tribe, the depositary of their traditions, their sage as well as their entertainer.” (p. 7). The roots of psychology, teaching, and religion, all stem from storytelling (Wilson, 2002).
Many thousands of years later, and fairly recent in our history, the written word appeared in Samaria, Babylonia, and Egypt in approximately 4,000 B.C. (Grun, 1991). EVERY single culture in the history of this planet has created stories in the form of myths, fables, legends, folktales, or similar constructs (Haven, 2007). Interestingly, there is one universal theme consistent in nearly all ancient stories (regardless of origin); they are predominantly stories of morality and they significantly contributed in shaping culture, perhaps even being the primary mechanism for the advance customs (Wilson, 2002). According to Ransome, there is no story written today which cannot trace its pedigree back to the primitive types of narrative. He states, “The history of story-telling henceforth is that of the abasement of the grand and the uplifting of the lowly, and of the mingling of the two… the history alike of the progress of humanity” (p. 10).
Clearly, our capacity for language and storytelling has been hardwired into the brain for hundreds and thousands of years. Written communication began less than 6,000 years ago. Haven (2007) states that modern forms of argument, persuasion, and logic developed well after than. He adds, “Most Western cultures began, en masse, to read and write only a few hundred years ago. Before that, oral stories were the dominant form through which history, news, values, cultural heritage, and attitudes were passed from person to person and from generation to generation” (Haven, 2007, p. 3-4).
“…your mind was evolutionary hardwired long before birth to think in specific story terms” (Haven, 2007).
We are born with approximately 100 billion brain cells (neurons). Each cell makes about 100,000 connections, called synapses (100 billion x 100,000 = 100 trillion connections!). The more connections a neuron makes, the stronger the neuron becomes. The more a connection fires, or is used, the stronger the bond becomes, turning this link into a super-highway for information to travel. Connections that go unused die off or become hard to access, like two-track pathways through the backwoods of the mind (Haven 2007; Baker, 2003; Goleman, 1995). “Somehow, through this freeway maze of links, loops, and electric traffic jams, we each manage to think, perceive, consider, imagine, remember, react, and respond” (Haven, 2007).
Through the organic construction of this vital organ, what connections become the strongest links and superhighways? Evolutionary biologists and other researchers who perform clinical studies on infants confirm that, at birth, the human mind processes information in story terms (Haven, 2007). It appears, hundreds of thousands of years of ancestral storytelling has hardwired the brain in a very specific way. The structure of story is how our brains are designed to internalize and interpret data before we even take our first breath. Odd as it may sound, researchers all agree, we enter this life prepared to understand the world through story.
As infants grow and develop, the story structure is reinforced. Not only are newborns looking to make sense of their world through the story structure, but children are constantly exposed to information in the form of story. During the most malleable and important learning years of our lives, the story-based neural network is replicated, reinforced, and solidified. “This dominance of story exposure through the key years of brain plasticity results in adults irrevocably hardwired to think in story terms” (Haven, 2007, p. 27). Story works best because our brains are hardwired to process information specifically as story.
Narrative as a Credible Resource
According to esteemed psychologist and research fellow at the New York University School of Law, Dr. Jerome Bruner (1986), there are two primary modes of cognitive functioning: argument and stories. They differ radically in their process, each offering distinctive, yet valuable ways of ordering experience. Arguments verify truth through singular, focused procedures of formal, empirical proof. Story establishes a perspective of truth from many points of view.
This qualitative outlook is an extremely important process for explaining human phenomenon. Author Mary Midgley (2001) agrees stating, there is no way we can collect any significant aspect of life without viewing it from different angles. John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox and well-known knowledge management guru, agrees stating, “As a scientist, I moved from equations and formulas to artificial intelligence, and from there to a growing appreciation of the power of the narrative -- the power of realizing that generalities are different from abstraction” (Ruggles & Holtshouse, 1999, p. ix).
Researcher, author, storyteller, and NASA consultant Kendall Haven (2007), performed an exhaustive and comprehensive review of more than 100,000 pages of quantitative and qualitative research from fifteen independent fields of study regarding story. He also collected more than 1,300 personal accounts from practitioners, performed storytelling for millions, and taught workshops to more than 240,000 teachers and students. Haven is an expert in the field of storytelling and he states; many research studies are contradictory, but not so with story. ALL researchers agree that stories work. Stories are the most effective and efficient structural method to motivate or communicate factual, conceptual, and abstract information.
From a leadership perspective, story is extremely important in communicating long-term reputation, and fostering culture. Legendary leadership researchers and authors, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal state that “Stories give flesh to shared values and sacred beliefs… Turned into stories, these events fill an organization’s treasure chest with lore and legend. Told and retold, they draw people together and connect them with the significance of their work” (p. 407).
Due to the fact that our historical predestination and organic makeup pre-programs us for stories, there are multiple benefits for the use of storytelling for education and industry. Haven (2007), author of Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, provides the following list of benefits backed by thousands of consistent and comprehensive research studies: (a) improved comprehension, (b) improved logical thinking and general learning, (c) enhanced meaning, (d) creates motivation and enthusiasm for learning, (e) creates involvement and sense of community, (f) improves literacy and language mastery, (g) improves writing structure, and (h) enhanced memory.
The best-selling authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (Patterson, et. al., 2008), agree that stories are a primary method to change minds and behavior. The authors offer the following award-winning research study as proof that story uniquely impacts brain functions. Three Italian researchers were studying action and brain response using a monkey as their subject. The monkey was hooked with electrodes to monitor brain activity and movement. While on break, one of the researchers wanted a snack and he reached out and grabbed a banana. Instantly, neurons in the monkey’s mind fired as if she were performing the action herself. By chance, the researchers made a groundbreaking discovery. The brain cells, now known as mirror neurons, fire as if action is being taken even when the subject is only observing the action. The same firing of neurons holds true when subjects listen to a story. “Poignant narratives help listeners transport themselves away from the content of what is being spoken and into the experience itself” (Patterson, et.al., 2008, p. 72). And again, “Concrete and vivid stories exert extraordinary influence because they transport people out of the role of critic and into the role of participant” (p. 61). One reason story is so powerful is that we virtually re-live the experience of someone’s story.
As if these documented studies weren’t enough, former financial corporate executive and leading storytelling authority, Steve Denning, offers these benefits from his diverse experience: (a) rapid understanding, (b) instant reach, (c) applicable to any size group (d) hi-tech compatible, (e) low-cost, (f) intrinsically known, (g) collaborative in nature, (h) fun and entertaining, (i) action oriented, (j) authentic and credible, and (k) creative and innovative. Denning sums up his experience by saying, “Storytelling works… Purposeful storytelling can get results in the modern organization that traditional abstract modes of communications can’t” (2003).
In the movie, Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, Professor Jones is faced with a decision to pick out the real Holy Grail among dozens of imposters. The wrong choice brings a painful death and the right choice heals his dying father. Before he makes his decision, the noble knight who had guarded the Grail with his life understates the situation by saying, “Choose wisely.” The same can be said in selecting story as a PR tactic.
Most obviously, story is not always the right tactic for PR. Strategy must still dictate which technique is best suited for the individual situation. Story is not a panacea for all PR issues. That said, a case can be made that story is severely underutilized based upon its power as a tool of influence. Story should certainly be considered more often for a well-rounded, more effective public relations plan.
Lastly, like all influence tools, the power of story can be used unethically. Simmons (2001) presents a case demonstrating Hitler’s masterful use of story to commit horrendous crimes against humanity. Ethics in public relations must continue to lead the use of appropriate tactics and be the cornerstone for all decision-making.
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© 2010 by Patrick Bishop; all rights reserved.