Business storytelling has emerged as a critical strategy to drive change in organizations, and with good reason. A well-told, appropriate story creates an emotional connection with the recipient and signals that we can be trusted—a critical component when driving change through an organization.
In the Harvard Business Review article “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” neuroeconomist Paul Zak revealed the powerful impact that the hormone oxytocin has on the brain when we tell stories. Oxytocin is also often referred to as the “trust hormone.” Our bodies release it when we are with people we love and trust, when we hug, or even when we shake hands in a business meeting. And it’s released when we listen to stories.
What’s more, neuroscientist Uri Hasson opened his 2016 TED Talk with “Imagine if I invented a device that could record my memories, my dreams, my ideas and transmit them to your brain.” He went on to discuss how that would be a game-changing technology, yet in reality we already possess this device: it’s called the human communication system and effective storytelling.
Hasson’s research shows that even across different languages, our brains show similar activity when we hear a story, becoming what he calls “aligned” or “synchronized.”
In one study, listeners lay in the dark waiting to hear a story spoken out loud. The moment the story started, the auditory cortex of the listeners’ brains, the area that processes sound, became active and aligned. Hassan calls this “neural entrainment.”
It was only when the listeners heard the story in a coherent way that alignment started to happen. This did not happen if the story was played backwards, or the words or sentences were scrambled. But the story was still understood in a similar way when it was told in Russian to a group of Russian-speaking listeners as it was when told in English to a group of English-speaking listeners.
As the scientific evidence above suggests, sharing stories is the perfect way to create common ground and a shared vision for change. Typically in organizations, this is attempted through a cascade communication approach of PowerPoint presentations filled with facts and figures or an outline of the pros and cons. These strategies are all based on logic and fail to tap into emotion, a critical mistake when driving change.
According to Christine Comaford, neuroscience expert and author of the New York Times bestseller Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, 90 percent of human behavior and decision-making is driven by our emotions.
Not fully understanding this is often why we get incredibly frustrated when the change fails even though it makes logical sense. But as best-selling author Dale Carnegie put it, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.”
Marketing executives and advertisers are acutely aware of the power of using storytelling and emotion to drive decisions. A study of more than 1,400 marketing campaigns submitted to the U.K.-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising rated how effective marketing campaigns were, based on profit gains. The results showed:
- Campaigns based purely on emotion rated as 31 percent effective.
- Campaigns based purely on logic rated as only 16 percent effective.
- Campaigns that combined emotion and logic rated as 26 percent effective.
This research indicates that using logic alone has the least impact, whereas using emotion almost doubles the effects. The same is true for driving change.
Focusing just on the logic has little impact. As communication professionals, we need to focus on stories to allow employees to emotionally connect with the change. That is when we can foster real change in an organization.