The organizations that succeed in the modern world are the ones that put on a great performance in the fullest sense of the word — the ones that delight their audiences. Every great performance has an idea behind it. When we experience a great performance, we are engaged; we are taken on a journey that tells us something about the experience of being human. A good story grabs the audience: Our protagonist sets off on a quest, encountering many temptations and dangers on their journey. They face overwhelming obstacles but overcome them. They find fame and glory but are dragged down to disaster by their inner demons. Boy meets girl, loses girl, then finds her again and wins her back.
These stories have gripped us for millennia. It doesn’t matter that we have seen them before; everyone has seen them before. What matters is that we tell a great story and the manner of the telling.
In organizations, if we fail to tell stories, we fail to engage people’s emotions and run the risk that they will not remember what we have said. Tell a compelling story, and the opposite happens: Your audience engages with you and remembers what you have to say.
Our Brains Are Hardwired to Respond to Stories
There is evidence that character-driven stories stimulate the synthesis of oxytocin, the neurochemical that enhances social bonding and our ability to understand others’ emotions.
Once we have been drawn into a story, we identify with the main characters; we share their anxieties and feel their pain. When, as in all good stories, there is a satisfying resolution, we feel satisfaction. We feel good.
Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist who was among the first to explore the link between oxytocin and trusting behavior between strangers. His laboratory discovered that a good way to “hack into” the oxytocin system and promote cooperative behavior is to tell stories. In his Harvard Business Review article “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Zak wrote:
“My experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits. I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story. Why should customers or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing? How does it change the world or improve lives? How will people feel when it is complete? These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable.”
The most successful companies don’t simply deliver goods and services. They put on a performance that — like every great performance — has a purpose and tells a story.
Author, consultant and speaker Simon Sinek set out to explain how great leaders inspire us to follow a cause and bring about change and how some organizations seem able to deliver a constant stream of innovative products and services that continue to delight their customers and create enduring loyalty. The answer, he says, is what he calls “the Golden Circle.” He imagines three concentric circles, with “What” in the outermost ring, “How” in the middle ring and “Why” at the center. We all know what we do, says Sinek, and some of us can describe how we do it, but inspirational leaders and great organizations know why they do what they do.
Organizations that want to deliver a real performance — that want to delight their audience — need to understand their purpose. They need to understand their “why” as well as their “what” and “how.” An organization’s purpose doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. If you genuinely are helping to save the planet, tell us about it, and we will love you for it. But there are many less dramatic, less significant purposes that are still meaningful, engaging and rewarding.
Tell the Story in Everything You Do
Once an organization (or an individual or team) understands its purpose and story, that story informs everything they do. Often, it is the story of an organization’s founding. Setting up any successful organization, after all, is a heroic task beset by risk and danger. The story of how and why the founder took those risks and overcame those threats comes to define the organization itself.
Once your organization understands its story, tell it in everything you do. Your audiences need to understand and remember your story so well that it is in the back of their minds in every encounter with you. It adds flavor to their dealings with you. It also underpins their expectations of you. If you deviate from the story or fail to be true to it, they will recognize it, and they may not forgive you.
For example, WeTransfer earns the trust of its creative community by keeping its interface clean, simple and visually stimulating. It reinforces it by offering a constant supply of fresh and inspiring stories about artists and creatives and their work. It makes 30% of its advertising freely available to creatives to promote their services.
Volkswagen, on the other hand, lost the trust of its audience when it deviated from its story about engineering excellence by installing “defeat devices” to cheat on government emissions regulations, rather than rising to the challenge by finding a genuine engineering solution.
An organization’s story is the emotional link between the organization and its audience. A false note breaks the spell, and the magic is over.
Remember to create your own personal narrative; be the hero of your own story. Most people’s lives have an interesting narrative arc, but it’s easy to become lost in the details. We did this, then this, then this … The traditional resume format forces us into listening many aspects of our lives that are, in effect, distraction. Step back a bit. Put on your editor’s hat. Think of the core strands of your life history — the things that have driven your life and career. There will be a strong story in there somewhere. Use it.
Teams also need their own story. They need to explain how they fit into the big picture, how they contribute to the organization’s purpose, and the challenges and obstacles they have to overcome to deliver on their objectives. Teams that understand their own “why” and know their narrative are well on the way to becoming genuine ensembles.
When we know our “why,” it’s impossible not to tell a story. Here are useful questions to ask yourself:
- Does our organization understand its purpose?
- Can we explain how and why we came to have our purpose and why it means so much to us?
- Can we unpack our purpose into a satisfying narrative?
- Is our story compelling, inspiring and true?
- Have we communicated our purpose and our story to our audiences?
- Does the audience love our purpose and our story, or do we need to find a more compelling way of telling it?
- Have we found our followers — the people who believe what we believe?
- Can you quickly tell the story of your own life and career? Does it have a satisfying shape and a narrative arc? Are you clearly the hero of this story?
- Does your immediate team know its own story? Do they celebrate it in everything they do?