Stories: types and purpose

As a consultant, you get used to having a go-to set of examples for a range of different situations. Got an HR problem? Here’s one another client had and how they overcame it. Customers won’t pay? How about trying this which has worked for me. Need to change your organisation’s culture? It’ll be slow and gradual, like turning a big ship around.

Reading this article, about seven types of stories leaders should tell, made me consider this grab bag of examples again. I hadn’t considered them as “stories”. Though, of course, they are. Interestingly, mine mostly fall into the categories outlined in this article.

They are targetted stories. They are designed to illustrate a problem, illuminate a solution, establish credentials, build rapport and yes, sell services.

Perhaps storytelling, at a business level, is intrinsically about selling. Selling a product, or an internal change, or an idea. Even the act of convincing itself is sometimes expressed in terms of selling and storytelling. When a government’s policy agenda is unpopular, you’ll hear commentators say, “they’ve been unable to sell their narrative” or “they couldn’t sell that idea to the public”.

So types of stories, yes. But how they’re deployed – to convince, cajole, entice, reassure. Is it all just selling in the end?

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The strategic power of storytelling

“Facts,” I recall Jane Caro once saying on an episode of The Gruen Transfer, “never convinced anyone of anything.” She was pointing out that emotions are much more likely to guide people’s decision making, and in particular decisions about purchasing.

Stories generate emotions. Or at least good stories do. This article from HBR starts out with the example of a Superbowl ad which had no attention grabbing celebrities or special effects, but had farmyard animals and an engaging story which helped sell large quantities of beer. The article attributes the ad’s success to its adoption of the five act structure (Freytag’s Pyramid) and the ability of a story to evoke a strong neurological response.

It’s not just about the manipulation of emotions to sell stuff. There’s also the ability to guide an organisation’s operations through use of storytelling. That is, storytelling as a strategy. This example, for instance, about changing behaviours.

“Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that medical students ‘ attitudes about dementia patients, who are perceived as difficult to treat, improved substantially after students participated in storytelling exercises that made them more sympathetic to their patients’ conditions.”

Behind these examples are, I suppose, leaders who understand when and how to deploy storytelling as a strategy. Leaders in organisations and leaders of the creative teams who put the campaigns/studies together. Is there a struggle of approaches, I wonder? How hard did someone behind the Budweiser ad have to argue to go with a story based approach, than just putting David Beckham on screen drinking Budweiser in front of some explosions?