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Our CEO writes of the power of brand storytelling for the ARITA journal, demonstrating how the best storytellers often translate to great leaders.

This article was written by Vanessa Stoykov for the ARITA journal in 2024.

 

Have you ever wondered whether your clients really understand what you are telling them? Or why do some colleagues have more success pitching for new business than you? It may be that you need to consider honing your storytelling skills. Why? Because good storytelling in business can make you more memorable and attract new revenue opportunities.

In research undertaken by the London School of Business, academics looked at information retention rates in three different scenarios.¹ The first was information based on presenting statistics alone. This was proven to have a 5–10% retention rate with an audience. The second was statistics presented with imagery. This increased the retention rate to 25%. For the third test group, information was presented in the form of a story to convey the same information. This increased information retention rates to a whopping 65–70%.

Understanding that good storytelling can increase your overall effectiveness means you need to know how to apply it. And the first story that needs to be developed is your own: who you are, and why you do what you do. In professions like insolvency, practitioners are often dealing with people who are in distress, and along with that distress comes high levels of emotion. Being able to connect with people in these situations can be challenging, so having some good stories to share that can alleviate stress and give people an understanding of the journey they are on can be incredibly effective.

Did you know that up to 65% of our discussions at work are made up of personal stories and opinions?² It might be a good time to start assessing what kind of stories you are telling at work and think about their effectiveness. Are they getting the desired outcome? If not, why are they failing to connect?

 

“The first story that needs to be developed is your own: who you are, and why you do what you do.”

 

I like to think of every story needing a good ‘hook’: the essence and point of the story that draws people in. Have you ever taken the time to develop your hook when describing what you do? For example, why did you enter the profession? Many people in professional practice have stories of growing up and seeing their parents lose a business or struggle financially. This may have been the motivator for you to begin your insolvency career. Starting a story with a hook like, ‘I saw what happened to my own parents when they got bad advice. I never want it to happen to anybody else,’ can be powerful and memorable, and it instantly positions you as an advocate for your clients who wants the best outcome for them.

Of course, not everyone has that particular story. So, what is yours? It may take some time to figure out a concise and interesting way of telling your backstory, but once you nail it you can use it time and time again. And the more personal insight you can give as you develop the story the more people will really relate to you.

The Harvard Business Review refers to research undertaken in 2023 about how brand storytelling can affect brain chemistry.³ An initial piece of research revealed that a neurochemical called oxytocin is produced in the brain when we are trusted or shown kindness, and it motivates us to cooperate with others. It does this by enhancing our sense of empathy and ability to experience others’ emotions, enabling us to understand what other people are going through and how they might react in situations they are faced with.

They then trialled showing video narratives rather than face-to-face interactions to see if oxytocin would still be produced. The trial showed conclusively that oxytocin production can be synthesised in the brain with exposure to character-driven stories, whether on video or in person.

These studies found that the most important part of narrative storytelling was the ability to capture and sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension. If the story can sustain that tension, then it is likely that viewers or listeners will come to share the emotions of the storyteller or the characters they are watching. And, even after the story ends, people will tend to mimic the feelings and behaviours of those characters. This can explain why we may want to drive faster after watching a film like The Fast and the Furious or go to the gym after watching Pumping Iron with Arnie.

So how does this production of oxytocin in the brain help us in business? If you are starting a presentation with a personal story that captures people’s interest and attention, they are far more likely to remember you and your message. And that could be the difference between winning a new client tender or creating an outcome you wanted with a group of stakeholders.

Good storytelling helps business inside the organisation as well. People are far more likely to be motivated by their company’s transcendent purpose – how it changes lives – rather than its transactional purpose – how it sells goods or services. Knowing how your business helps people and using stories to communicate this can be powerful as an internal motivator. In fact, you can often use real client stories – the situation they were in, and how your firm helped to improve their life.

I know of firms that have monthly review meetings with all staff to talk about the clients they helped and the outcomes achieved. These stories can be celebrated and used as motivation to keep winning new work, and to keep delivering to those who are working with you today. How your business helped clients is the most memorable part of what you do. So how do you create memorable storytelling, starting with you, and extending it to your business? Begin by finding your own hook for your backstory and start telling it. You will find over time you can hone the art of the story and its timing, and you will get better at delivering it every time you tell it. Then, look at your storytelling in your business. Whether you are part of a large or small practice, there are stories you can tell. What is on your website? Do you have a presence on social media? How do you deliver your new business presentations? Are you boring people and leaving the wrong impression with PowerPoint? Now is the time to start reviewing what you have done so far and what can be improved.

Most people in professional practice believe relationship selling is the best way to grow a business, and there is no doubt that connections and reputation play a huge part in any firm’s success. But what if powerful storytelling was incorporated internally? And to your clients? And if those stories were included in communications like your newsletter? Would that increase engagement and deliver better overall results? More than likely the answer is yes. In fact, people are 22 times more likely to remember a story-based piece of information.

So how can you convert your content into stories? You may need to find help to begin the process. There are many individual consultants and agencies who can help you develop your own corporate story. Don’t be afraid of engaging their services, and of paying for it, because your business will benefit from the results for many years to come.

American writer and professor Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, discussed the storytelling concept of the ‘heroes’ journey’ – which involves the hero of the story going on an adventure, meeting significant challenges, and being victorious only after overcoming a decisive crisis. In the process, the hero comes home changed or transformed. George Lucas credited this concept in his development of the Star Wars franchise.

While you don’t need to create stories like Star Wars for your business, when you think about your own story, what is your heroes’ journey? What have you overcome to get where you are? How did that change you along the way for the better? This kind of thinking can really help the development of your own backstory as well as the story of your firm.

There is much evidence of the power of corporate storytelling. So, the next time you want to motivate, persuade or inspire people, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains. The science has proved it.

 


 

¹ Dore J. (2019, Nov 20). Storytelling: time for a reboot. London Business School. https://www.london.edu/think/storytelling-time-for-a-reboot.

² Gallo C. (2019, July 15). The Art of Persuasion Hasn’t Changed in 2,000 Years. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-art-of-persuasion-hasnt-changed-in-2000-years.

³ Zak P. (2014, Oct 28). Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling