People communicate through stories. As people communicate, they engage each other through analogy (this is like that), metaphor (the ‘army’ of sales reps), and stories. Humans are always using these processes to engage their listeners, develop shared meaning, and convey information in ways that make it easy to understand.

We don't do well with facts alone. Without connection to anything, or context through story, facts are readily forgotten.

The power of stories is that they connect information to emotion and to process, making them relevant and memorable.

From a neuroscience point of view, stories increase attention (relevance, priming), increase the connection to other stored information, and allow the material to tap into episodic memory.

Some people can remember the order of multiple packs of playing cards randomly presented to them at the rate of one card per second. They don’t do this by remembering the cards, but by creating and remembering a story. The very best at this create stories around the sequence of cards — so that they can enhance their meaning and storage capability beyond the usual ‘working memory’ of 7 +/- 2 chunks of information.

People naturally use stories to convey information. The best storytellers are often the best communicators.

So if stories are being told all the time in your business, how do you ensure that they add value rather than destroy it?

The types of stories that are acceptable and valued are a critical definition of your culture. If your staff is allowed (or even encouraged) to tell ‘stories' about how they are too busy, how they took personal advantage of a situation, or how they were rewarded for inappropriate behaviour, then your culture supports, and reinforces, stories that can ruin your business. Importantly, these stories are readily remembered, and become the marker for what is acceptable or valued in your business.

On the other hand, if the stories are about effort, reward for great strategies, perseverance, and doing the right thing, then these describe the culture instead. Which would you prefer?

As leaders, we need to be critically aware of the stories that are being told in the business. I once worked with a group, and when someone told a story about how they had made a process more efficient, someone immediately piped up and asked: ‘How many jobs were cut?' This question, left unchallenged, described the problems existing in the workforce. Fear, avoidance, and status quo were key cultural pillars.

However, challenging it and telling a more powerful and valuable story, communicated to the group that such frames of thinking were not appropriate or acceptable.

What can you do?

  • Listen for the stories in your business. Use them as a way to gauge the cultural ‘temperature'
  • Tell lots of stories that highlight positive values and possible solutions
  • Identify ‘heroes' in your business and tell their stories
  • Reframe any negative story you hear. Challenge stories that are damaging to your culture, call them out, and don't accept or walk past them (lest they become acceptable)
  • Encourage your leaders and managers to be great storytellers

Everyone in your business is telling stories, but are they the right ones?