'Tis the Season of Stories

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The importance of stories in your business

It's a few days after Thanksgiving, the Christmas holiday preparations have begun, and I just didn't think a techie post makes sense for this time of the year. Who wants to think about that stuff now!

So, I scratched my head and wondered, "What would be useful, yet appropriate, as a post for this time of year?"

And, then it came to me -- STORIES!

If there is ever a time of year that stories appear EVERYWHERE, it's during the month of December.

Thinking about when I was a young child, one of the first Christmas storybooks I remember is "Twas the Night before Christmas". What a magical book! Big pictures and red velvet on the pages. When the book was read to me the story conjured up sounds of the reindeer on the roof, jingle bells, Santa's "Ho, Ho, Ho", the smell of the Christmas tree. I remember loving that book for years, and even right now, I'm wondering what happened to it!

And, the next memorable story is the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay. The Baby Jesus born in a manger, surrounded by camels, donkeys and sheep. The three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Baby, guided by the Star of Bethlehem. That story was so important that the manger scene was re-enacted in our home, church, family and friends' homes (and of course, still is). "The Gift of the Magi" is another story I remember well from childhood.

Stories fill the season. There are so many old stories made into movies -- "Miracle on 34th Street", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "It's a Wonderful Life", "A Christmas Carol", "White Christmas", "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". And, every few years a new movie comes out that is sure to become a classic -- "Elf", "A Christmas Story", "The Polar Express", "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", "The Santa Clause".

So many of these stories, even those that seem to be meant purely for entertainment, have a moral, a lesson, or behavior being demonstrated. "You better be a good boy or girl and be asleep when Santa arrives if you want him to deliver your gifts" ... teachings of faith through biblical Christmas stories ... the importance of treating people well, of being generous and taking care of those less fortunate. Even those who don't celebrate the religious or secular holidays can likely find a story to enjoy (and learn from) in December. 

Not just a story!

Stories are so much more than a "tale". Stories are how we humans pass down our history to new generations, teach important lessons and make information more understandable and relatable. 

It was working for many years in the non-profit world that I learned the importance of storytelling. To effectively raise money for the cause, we needed to tell the story of a person we served in a way that demonstrated to our donors how important their participation was in helping the individual. They needed to feel the need and feel that they could and should help. Our storytelling was about helping people help others. 

I have spoken about storytelling techniques to groups several times. Each time I have, I've gotten feedback from someone that used the techniques and experienced measurable, positive results. Recently, I met someone who had heard an "abridged" version of the talk seven months earlier. She mentioned that it was one of the most beneficial talks she'd heard. She was able to change her presentation from just listing facts to telling a story that demonstrated the benefits a client received from her business. She said that this helped to keep her audience engaged (because who doesn't get engrossed in a good story!) and produced more tangible results.  

What makes a good story?

So, what makes a good story?  In its simplest form, there are three key pieces -- a protagonist (or main character), a stressor or problem, and finally, a resolution.  I like to think of a story arc:

The Story Arc

Think about Disney stories. Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast. Each has a main character, and that main character has a problem (caused by a witch, a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, a beast!), and in some way, that problem not only gets resolved, but the main character lives happily ever after!  Isn't that the same formula we see in so many of our great Christmas stories?

But, why are stories so important? Why can't we just "give ya the facts"?

Why do stories work better than facts, checklists, and even powerpoint presentations?

There are neuroscientists who have studied how our brain relates to different kinds of data. They have found that when our brains are processing factual information, only a few parts of our brain "light up". However, when our brains are processing well-crafted stories, many parts of our brain light up. When we listen to a story, our brain can't really tell the difference between the "tale" and real life. Just think about when you are watching a scary movie. If it's done well, don't you get tense, scared, even physically react -- maybe even close your eyes and put your hands over your face? The story has you engaged -- and feeling like YOU are in danger!

Stories cause your brain to release behavior-changing chemicals

Still talking about the science, the stress you feel as a result of a well-told story releases cortisol. Cortisol helps you pay more and closer attention. Going back to that scary movie, aren't you looking closely for ways to escape or avoid the danger you are experiencing (oops, the actor is experiencing)?

Well-told stories that include a main character, a problem and a resolution involve our brains in a way that facts don't. Stories make us feel like we are actually experiencing the situation. Because of this, we can learn from them for the day we experience a similar situation in our own lives. That is why telling stories of how your business has made a difference in one of your client's lives can help you gain new clients. You may be thinking that's a bit farfetched -- but if you really consider it, it's not. Telling about how a client didn't have proper insurance, and what happened when it was needed, communicates to your listeners very differently than just giving them the facts about business insurance. It helps them see themselves in the story!

Back to the science. Another chemical released in our brains by a well-told story is oxytocin. Oxytocin enhances our sense of empathy and ability to experience other's emotions. It encourages us to be cooperative and generous. (See why storytelling is so important for non-profits?  See why storytelling is important for your business?)

How can you use stories in your business or organization?

One of the simplest ways to use stories is to include testimonials. Ask your clients and customers that appreciate your work to tell the story of their experience with you. Ideally, they will tell about some problem that you solved for them, and how they are now living "happily ever after!"

Another way you can include stories is in describing your services. You can include narrative that demonstrates some difficult situations that you have encountered and how you have resolved them. Help your potential clients "see themselves" in these situations.

Even your about page can be a story. Rather than a resume, tell your story. How did your business come to be? What passion are you pursuing and why? Have you overcome a huge problem, or do you routinely help others overcome a problem? Can you tell your story using the arc?

Finally, making a commitment to writing a blog on your website is a great way to tell all kinds of stories.

Put your learning to the test

How about taking a break from the busyness of the holiday season and enjoy one of my favorite stories, Charles Schulz's "A Charlie Brown Christmas". As you watch, pay attention to how Schulz crafts his message. How he pulls you into the story by introducing his main characters, makes you feel empathy for them, introduces some stressor and then provides the resolution or "happy ever after" at the end. What did he intend to teach you as he also entertained you? Reflect on how you might introduce stories to enhance your own messages for your clients and prospects.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
One of my favorite holiday movies
(Public Domain Mark 1.0)


If you want to learn more about storytelling, I've compiled storytelling resources for you. Here you will find books, TED talks and websites to help you explore storytelling further.

I hope this has given you a new perspective on storytelling. And, I hope it also triggered a bit of a desire to slow down and enjoy some of our many great holiday stories.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

To learn how to use stories in your business, feel free to contact us.

Have you used stories as part of your business marketing strategy? Add to the discussion below!

Do you have a question or suggestion for a future post? Leave it in the comments!


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