Story is not a stand-alone solution
Contrary to the hype, story is not a stand-alone solution for all communication problems in the business world. Story is part of an interdependent trio in which each part is reliant on the other to create a successful synergy.
The Three-legged Stool
To implement story as part of an interdependent trio, think of story as one leg of a three-legged stool. Story engages the heart and emotions. Our head or logic is the second leg of the stool. Our hands represent the practical application of combining head and heart. When the three legs are aligned, the stool is solid and stable. If one of the legs is weak or misaligned, the stool wobbles and is unstable.
The Two-legged Stool
Not very long ago, the business world relied on facts and stats to convince potential clients to buy. The reasoning being, people make decisions based on logic alone – if the factual information adds up, then the correct decision can be made. If we weren’t ‘ready’ to make a decision, then we just got more facts and data until we were.
However, neuroscience showed us that the decision-making process is not based on logic alone. Once we have sufficient information, it is our emotions, our gut feeling, or our intuition that play a pivotal role in making a decision. It would seem we humans are indeed three-legged stools and each leg contributes to a steady, stable stool.
One of the spin-offs of these science-based insights is re-discovering story as a powerful business tool. Not only did storytelling help translate facts and stats into easily digestible information, it humanised how we do business by creating human-based contexts in which to connect.
The Science of Storytelling
Whether through video, image and text, there is ample evidence of the neurological effects of storytelling on our brain. Telling or listening to a story stimulates a range of chemical responses and cortex activities which aid memory and support easy identification. This process is often referred to as Neural Story Net (NSN). It illustrates how the brain turns arbitrary information into a story that makes sense to the individual.
That’s why businesses raced to embrace storytelling because science proved that it does what no amount of facts can do. Storytelling inspires and motivates us to act, i.e. to change our behaviour. The popular catchphrase that quickly ruled showed us exactly the nature of ‘change’ the business world craved: “Story sells!”
Marketers queued up to show us how ‘compelling’ stories make our service or product ‘irresistible’. What exactly should we not resist? Our logic?
Does that mean we by-pass the head and go straight from the heart to the hands?
The Danger of Creating a Direct Link between Emotions and Behaviour
Science shows how story supports the way we process facts to make sense of the the myriad of information presented to us, via our neural story network. However, the business world also saw an opportunity to instrumentalise storytelling for pragmatic purposes.
It does this in two different and often intersecting ways.
- It’s an opportunity to short-circuit data, and create a direct line between our emotional response and our hands. Story now directly influences our behaviour by ignoring the facts. Suddenly we celebrate the heart as king. It provides us with a direct route to creating change, glorified in the new catchphrase: “Change your story, change the world.” Did anyone question either the nature of the planned change or the integrity of the story?
- It also saw the potential of implementing the Neural Story Net via its limitations to influence and misrepresent the facts. By prioritising the outcome, facts became malleable material to be shaped into ‘compelling’ stories to manipulate the audience. (The world of politics provides endless examples of how certain groups create ‘alternative’ facts to fit an ideological story and influence outcomes)
How to Avoid this Subtle and Dangerous Manipulation of Story
It’s easy to say that we should always interrogate the intention behind the story and double-check the facts. But the task of fact checking is becoming more difficult and less reliable in our changing social media landscape. The advancement of artificial neural network (a branch of AI) now has the capacity to craft stories according to algorithms.
We don’t know what the future holds. However, one step to retaining our autonomy as storytellers is to remember that story is part of an interdependent trio. We should choose the three-legged stool model, always questioning the integrity of our intentions and use whatever reliable means we have available to double check the facts.
Another is of course to engage in dialogue – as opposed to monologue. I’ve written about the benefits of dialogue as interactive communication here. While dialogue is not a cure-all solution for our communication problems, it does help us safeguard our autonomy and integrity.