Storytelling: improving motivation and engagement

The word ‘story’ may conjure up cosy memories of sitting on the carpet in the first years of your school life, surrounded by your peers and friends, listening with rapt delight as the teacher regaled the class with tall tales and heroic deeds. A nostalgic snapshot from the past, but a million miles away from the corporate business world.

Perhaps not.

Engaging and motivating an audience is one of the most difficult aspects of being a leader. Whether that audience is your direct report, a roomful of people or an international workforce, a story enables the speaker to connect unfamiliar ideas with the emotional core of the listener. And penetrating people’s feelings has a much more compelling impact than engaging their cerebral cortex, as Steve Denning explains:

At a time when corporate survival often requires disruptive change, leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar, and often unwelcome, ways. Mind-numbing cascades of numbers or daze-inducing PowerPoint slides won’t achieve this goal. Even the most logical arguments usually won’t do the trick. But effective storytelling often does. (Denning, 2005,

Refamiliarising yourself with stories

Storytelling is part of the fabric of the human condition. Since time immemorial human beings have used storytelling to instruct and lead; whether it’s to impart valuable life-lessons to our children and those we care for, or to demonstrate our trustworthiness and reliability to a potential employer we simply can’t help but tell them. Storytelling, then, is not simply a relic from our dim and distant past but a living language we can use to communicate effectively with others.

It’s important to note that ‘story’ is not synonymous with ‘fantasy’. The most engaging, compelling stories are based on the truth. Just think how your stomach clenches a little bit tighter when the credits roll on a harrowing film and the words ‘Based on true events’ illuminate the screen. Knowing that something has a basis in reality makes it that much more relatable, and more readily assimilable.

Business benefits of storytelling

A story that engages people’s emotions enables leaders to inspire, and to encourage staff to get behind the organisation’s goals. Intellectual arguments may have a sound basis in fact and reason, yet facts alone are unlikely to prompt action. Combining an idea or concept with feelings paves the way for action. Specific benefits to business include:

  • Engagement – The brain constantly receives information and works to make sense of the experience and to remember it. A story is much more easily digested than a long list of facts and figures. Stories also allow listeners to imagine themselves in the place of the protagonist and leads to a much higher engagement and retention rate.
  • Trust – Telling a story makes the speaker vulnerable: they must explain their hopes, dreams, challenges and failures to reach a conclusion. Being open makes the speaker more trustworthy.
  • Willingness – Facts speak to logic, and if the speaker’s facts and reasoning contrast with that of the listener it results in an inner conflict for the listener. If the emotional core of the story can speak to the feelings of the listener then they are much more likely to understand the thinking and to get behind what is being asked of them.
  • Action – When people understand and are willing to work towards a goal, productivity and cohesive action are greatly improved.

Telling compelling stories

As with any kind of speaking and communication, effective storytelling is an art. These pointers will give you some direction:

  • Be honest – Not just with your words and the content of your story, be honest with your deeds as well. Admitting that emotions exist and have a place at work can be difficult enough for some and sharing them with others can seem daunting. Vulnerability is the surest way to enhance the power of your story.
  • Tailor your story – Know who you are speaking to, what their fears and hopes are. Meet your audience’s expectations and take them on a journey that engages those emotions and satisfies what they need to hear.
  • Keep it relevant – In the same way that you must tailor your story to your audience, make it relevant to the situation.
  • Believe in the goal – If you’re not wholly committed to what you’re trying to communicate to your audience then storytelling just won’t work. It’s not enough to simply manufacture a story to persuade people to believe in something that you’re not totally behind. You have to live it and breathe it yourself if you’ve any chance of prompting other people to feel the same way.

Storytelling may sound counterintuitive when you first think of business communications. In practice, it feels much more natural: the children that once sat side by side with classmates and peers listening attentively to the teacher are the same adults that stand before the podium. If business leaders can effectively capture the emotion and the feeling behind their goals and objectives and relay that to staff and colleagues the potential for inspiring leadership is greatly improved. The picture of colleagues uniting with delight and engagement behind a common goal is motivating in itself – business leaders have only to answer the question, which of their stories will get them there?

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