Once upon a time…

How to harness the power of stories to connect, engage and inspire

Indranil Chakraborty

Little things make a big difference. In 2007, during the Iraq war, a general stationed at a riot-prone Iraqi town, noticed that, almost always,4-5 hours before riots erupted, a crowd would buildup at the Plaza.

He went to the town's mayor and asked him whether he would be open to removing food vendors from the plaza if the American general were to ever request that. The mayor agreed. The next time the general saw a buildup; he called the mayor and asked that food vendors be moved out temporarily. People gathered, waited a few hours, felt hungry and they left. The same thing happened to people who came a little later. This one act saw riots reduce by 55 percent. This is why I believe little things make a big difference.

What you just read was what I call a business story. I made a business point about little things that make a big difference, narrated an anecdote in less than a minute, and finished by restating the point. I am certain most people will remember the story for a long time. We all remember stories.

Even as you were reading the story, something fascinating was happening in our brains. The neurons lit up and followed a similar pattern. This phenomenon was first described by Charles Gross of Princeton University in June,2010 writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While describing what he called "Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling", he shared another fascinating observation. "Though on average the listener's brain activity mirrors the speaker's activity with a delay, we also find areas that exhibit predictive anticipatory response". Simply put, the listener while listening intently is going ahead of the teller and anticipating what will happen next.

Imagine then what a leader would give to have the audience react with anticipation when delivering important messages. Messages like company vision, mission, and strategy. It is not difficult. The process is called business storytelling.

This is a simple and effective tool to harnesses the power of stories to connect, engage and inspire. Stories have excited, moved and taught us many things while we were growing up. The earliest stories, expressed as cave paintings, predate the birth of language. We all remember leaning in to listen to stories told by our favourite uncle or aunt when we were young.

The idea that storytelling is useful only for entertainment is a myth. Because when implemented, storytelling is an invaluable tool to inspire, influence and provide insights in a business context. These skills are handy on the frontlines as well like sales, marketing, business development or product presentations. It is a source of competitive advantage as well for anyone who likes to connect, engage and inspire. Let's consider a few situations where the ability to communicate is important for any leader.

We meet people and introduce ourselves and hope to build a rapport. We hope they will remember us after having met. But most of us often use a mini-resume to do that. Like, "born here, studied there, worked there and there and now here." The problem with this approach is that the listener, with whom we are trying to build a rapport, hears 15-20 such mini-resumes every week. Why should they remember us? What should they remember us for?

That is why using connection stories while introducing ourselves can be a distinct advantage. These are short, relevant, real life stories about us, which create a hook in the mind of the listener and let them infer something about our character. For instance, a story from my childhood about how I had created a comic circulating library and made some pocket money can impress the listener with my entrepreneurial instinct.

Then there are clarity stories. Leaders always come up with new ideas and approaches. Getting everybody else to understand and remember these ideas is difficult. Clarity stories help people connect with the bigger picture and understand the reason for the change.

Other kinds of stories useful in business are called influence stories - used when we need to overcome old entrenched views and make way for the new - and success stories, for communicating business values without using case studies.

Story listening is a very powerful way of understanding "what is really going on". For instance, organizations can use this narrative enquiry technique to understand what lies behind the annual employee engagement survey numbers.

When all of these come together, the most important skill of all falls into place. The power to lead!

[This article was published concurrently in Mint]

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About the author

Indranil Chakraborty
Indranil Chakraborty



Indranil believes Business Storytelling will be the number one leadership and communication skill of the next decade. Using storytelling in the right manner, business leaders can connect, engage and inspire their teams. We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than disconnected facts. This is how he believes we can harness the natural power of stories to communicate strategy, make them stick, bring values to live and develop the communication capabilities of leaders.

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