In 2014, neuroeconomist Paul Zak wrote an article for Harvard Business Review, called ‘Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling’. In it, he revealed the powerful impact of oxytocin on the brain whenever we listen to stories.

Oxytocin is also often referred to as the ‘trust hormone’; our bodies release it when we are with people we love, when we hug, or even when we shake hands in a business meeting. And, as Zak says in his article, it’s also released when we listen to stories. It signals to the brain that everything is okay and that things can be trusted – and in a business setting, when an organisation is undergoing change, that is critical.

During times of change, a number of questions run through the heads of employees, including do I get behind this change, do I believe you, and, importantly, do I trust you?

Usually, leaders try to influence these decisions through a PowerPoint presentation of facts and figures, laying out the pros and cons and the process that will be followed. Yet these strategies are all based on logic; science says that a person’s decision to trust is not based on reason so much as how we feel about something. As bestselling 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.”

In fact, 90% of human behaviour and decision-making is driven by our emotions, according to Christine Comaford, neuroscience expert and author of New York Times bestseller Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.

Not fully understanding this can be the cause of incredible frustration when employees do not get behind a change that leaders think makes logical sense. Storytelling is a crucial method for making plans understood in a way that makes emotional sense.

Christine Corbett, chief customer officer at Australia Post, sponsors one of corporate Australia’s largest organisational change initiatives, and sees storytelling as a critical tool. “When leaders communicate in their own words, in a story that means something to them, others remember and relate to this story, and re-tell it over and over again,” she says. “To have this effect, you need to invest the time in getting out and talking to your teams and hearing their stories. They are the ones who really know what works and will make a difference.’

Essentially the emotional connection created by stories creates a ripple effect, where stories are shared between employees by choice. This helps break down any barriers against organisational change.

It’s therefore important that leaders learn storytelling should be directly related to organisational change, and remember that there are 3 key factors for effective storytelling:

3 key factors for effective storytelling

  • An organisation needs to have a culture that is comfortable with their leaders demonstrating vulnerability and emotion.
  • An organisation needs to invest in teaching storytelling to senior leaders across the organisation, as well as training key support staff such as those in corporate affairs and HR.
  • The CEO and senior executive team of the organisation need to be role models both for storytelling and for listening to the stories of others.