There are two ways to persuade people: Intellectual appeal through rhetoric, and emotional appeal through the power of story. The trouble with rhetoric alone is that people have their own facts: They tend to believe what they already know. So inspiration—the ability to engage people at an emotional level—is vital to the success of any social change brand.
Think about it: plenty of people still smoke, despite being fully aware of the health risks. The facts don’t persuade them. By contrast, the great motivators of history—Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill—didn’t speak about facts and figures; they spoke about the ideals of a “great nation,” and the commitment to “never surrender.” They reached into their people’s hearts, stirring them to action and change.
Relying only on logic, on what can be factually established, may inform or intimidate, but it will rarely stir anyone into action or change.” — Charlotte Beers
Storytelling is in our DNA
What is it in our human nature that makes storytelling such a profoundly effective mode of communication? Simple: It’s in our DNA. Every child—outgoing or shy—is a born storyteller. Just watch them play: They create a world in their minds through which their toys move. Dolls become emperors. Stuffed toys become arch-villains. Back gardens become jungles.
What we’re really doing is stitching together observed patterns into predictive narratives in our minds. We experience the world through observation and sense-making. When we see a car too rapidly approaching us at an intersection, we’re able to predict that it will hurt us if we step out on to the crosswalk! We know that steam coming from a bath will burn our baby if we place her in the tub. Or more positively, we associate the smell of cut grass and the sound of birdsong as signals of a beautiful spring morning.
The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. — Zhuangzi
This ability to see, extrapolate insights, and predict what’s next is an evolutionary response to bodily or social threat. It’s easy to imagine how it helped our forebears survive on the savannah!
Humans excel at pattern recognition. Stories are remarkable vehicles to enable memorization and sharing of important patterns—the ‘shortcut’ version of the facts we would like to use to make decisions.
And once you’ve memorized the story, you can forget the more complicated process of pattern recognition, cause, and effect.
So how do we turn this remarkable human capacity to our organizations’ advantage?
A significant aspect of any leader’s role is motivating the people around them. A well-told story brings facts to life, puts them in a useful context, and uses emotional resonance to help the audience understand the connections between cold hard facts and real life.
Many aspects of effective storytelling are taught in our schools: In high school English classes, for example, we learn about plot, setting, protagonists and antagonists, and the ‘narrative arc’—the rising action, climax and denoument that are collectively the map of any great story. But for brands and brand managers, the most vital part is the story’s capacity to inspire—to engage hearts, shift thinking, and compel people to take action.
Among the many ways to infuse a story with inspiration are these four oft-used techniques….
1. Cultivate empathy. We’re social beings, inherently programmed to care for our fellow human beings. By sharing insights into the plight of another, and helping audiences to connect the dots between the protagonist’s lived experience and their own, storytellers help their audiences to care. Beyond the facts and data, caring is vital if the storyteller is to inspire action.
2. Appeal to shared aspirations. By sharing a vision of a better life, community, or world, great storytellers put a spark to the kindling of their audiences’ imaginations. The more clear and visceral the mental picture storytellers convey, the hotter the spark.
3. Share joy. Sharing the moments that give life meaning connects to our inherent need to belong. Sharing joyful anecdotes, achievements or those magical and memorable moments in time is a powerful way to connect with the camaraderie of shared community.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” — John Steinbeck
4. Help people to laugh. Arguably the greatest unifier of people is a laugh. Our sense of humour helps us weather hardship, address difficult topics, and by making light of that which is daunting, find a way forward. To be truly effective, humour should complement and extend the ‘hard truth.’ When there’s a hint of frustration or pain, humour can be all the more powerful.
Many of history’s greatest, most celebrated personalities have been the storytellers. It’s both one of the great talents and the great mysteries of leadership. Build effective storytelling into a brand, and you’ll find the path to the inspiration you need to engage customers, motivate donors, and propel people toward ‘the change you seek.’
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. Ask us about the storytelling workshop he delivers at conferences and for leading social impact clients.