It’s been said that stories and storytelling have been in existence most likely since the birth of human language. Yet in many of our current workplaces and business cultures, storytelling as a communication method seems devalued and underused, certainly compared with the strict emphasis on facts, numbers, trends and statistics.
To learn more about how storytelling can help businesses thrive, I caught up with Dr. Murray Nossel, the founder and director of Narativ. Dr. Nossel is on the teaching faculty of the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Helping people tell their story has been Murray Nossel’s lifelong career, first with AIDS patients during the crisis, and now as founder of Narativ with clients including Walt Disney Company, Time Warner, UNICEF, Radisson Hotels, Birchbox and Twitter.
Kathy Caprino: What is “storytelling” and how can we use it to empower our business and personal communications?
Murray Nossel: There are many different kinds of storytelling—there’s fiction and non-fiction. You can tell stories about people or historical events. The type of storytelling I teach is personal story telling, which I define as giving a fact based, sensory account of events that have occurred in one’s own life. That’s the personal part. What I mean by storytelling is: organizing a sequence of sensory details such that they have an emotional arc, and that you can witness progress and change in the protagonist.
Storytelling is part of our evolution as human beings. From our earliest ancestors until now, we have used stories—these sequences of events—as a way of passing down vital lessons about gathering food, finding shelter, developing tools, and so forth, to our next of kin. Now, when we talk about storytelling in business, we’re relying on that same deeply-rooted receptivity to storytelling. We’re using it to strategically tell and communicate vital information about the business that ensures its survival and growth.
Caprino: Why is storytelling so powerful?
Nossel: For me all storytelling boils down to one thing: connection. Connection with our audience is our “lion’s gaze.” The quality of connection that results from storytelling is deeper, more lasting, more resonant , and therefore qualitatively more powerful than other means of communication. Whether you’re talking about sales or marketing, human resources, or content-generation, your ultimate success depends heavily on your connection with an audience. Think about when we don’t connect with someone, a speaker for example, how all our interest drains out‚ while when we do, it’s a whole different experience. Yes, stories touch people on a cerebral level, but primarily on an experiential and emotional level. And we know that’s where change occurs. That connection-point is where true transformation takes place.
Caprino: You’ve shared that storytelling affects the listener’s brain. How so?
Nossel: One of the primary functions of the brain is sense-making. The brain helps us to make sense out of our experience and, one of the things we human beings have to make sense of unlike any other species, is the fact that we are aware of our mortality.
So the brain really has to wrestle with that significant awareness. Religion and the stories of mystics and saviors help us find meaning and coherence in the face of this awareness. Also when traumatic things happen, how do we explain them to ourselves? So the brain does have this tremendous sense-making ability around diverse and profound experiences, which, in essence, helps us to survive. Our brains are hardwired for this type of dynamic sense-making.
In fact, PET scan research shows that when people are listening to stories or telling stories, similar areas of the brain light up. When we hear stories being told, when we tell stories, we’re engaging and activating very specific neural pathways in our brains. Storytelling is like mental gymnastics. It’s good for the brain.
Caprino: How does great storytelling overcome common blocks to people’s and audiences’ attention and listening?
Nossel: A great storyteller is someone who knows how to use detail, dialogue, and character development as a way of driving forward action. If we think about going to the movies or reading a novel, what is it that grabs our attention immediately? It’s some kind of identification. We need to recognize ourselves in the hero.
What fosters this kind of identification? It’s details. Stories with more specific detail are those that become more universal because we all relate keenly to sensory information—to actions and characteristics—rather than to abstraction. As we spoke before, if our ancestors gave vague survival information, if they said, “the spring is over that way…,”it would have been of little use—if not disastrous. We are attuned to, attracted to, and stimulated by detail, naturally. So when you tell stories with sensory details about objects, specificity in your dialogue, and with precise descriptions of the protagonist’s character, you are grabbing attention. You are engaging people’s brains, activating their sensory memories. That engagement serves to undo blocks in listening and attention.
Caprino: How can storytelling resolve conflicts and break down barriers between coworkers, clients or customers?
Nossel: A great deal of conflict and break down occurs as a result of miscommunication, and I would say, more specifically, because of conscious or unconscious emotional turbulence that arises in interactions.
In Narativ’s method, storytelling does not exist in a vacuum; it always exists in relationship to listening. Listening is like a vessel that shapes the story. If my listening vessel is contaminated with judgments, criticisms, assumptions about the other, that’s the shape of the story I’ll elicit. So I need to learn how to suspend judgment, assumption and criticism when I’m listening to a story. On the teller’s end, Narativ’s definition of storytelling is a “What happened?” account, which means that he or she sticks strictly to the facts in the story.
When we say only what happened, we remove our opinions, our judgments, our criticisms, which are the fertile ground of conflict. Opinions only beget other opinions. Narativ’s method aligns people on both sides around a factual account of what happened, without interpretations. Simply said, in order to break down barriers, you have to make sure that people are able to listen to one another’s “What happened?” accounts. This is how communication can be transformed.
Caprino: How can storytelling help us get over our terror of public speaking?
Nossel: We have open enrollment workshops and many people come to them, you know, with the terror of public speaking, and they’re absolutely convinced that they’re not going to be able to tell their story to an audience. One of my students was so terrified of this prospect that she wanted to wear dark glasses on stage. She went on to become a grand finalist at the Moth.
So what allowed this transformation? When you truly engage with storytelling, it arouses a genuine joy inside of you. People feel a sense of joy and bliss when they’re telling their stories. And when you get a taste of that bliss, you really do want to share it. In contrast, when the emphasis is on performance—”I’m doing well” or “I’m doing badly,” and when there’s a whole judgmental framework from which you are operating, forget it. Your terror of public speaking will just increase. But when you tell your story from a place of embodiment, you feel the sheer bliss of being alive.
Caprino: For those who are new to the power of storytelling, what are 5 strategies for crafting an impactful, compelling story that generates results?
Nossel: Here are the top 5 strategies:
Answer the questions, “Why story? Why now?” Why am I using story and to what end right now?
Find your emotional turning point.
Clear your internal judge and critic and activate your memories and imagination.
Tell only “What happened?”
Find and know your ending.
Caprino: If a company practices listening and telling so that people increasingly feel safe to tell their stories, what potential does that release for the entire organization?
Nossel: Well, if you practice the kind of communication skills that are taught in the listening and storytelling method, people will feel very free to share the things that they know, and that knowledge is crucial to every organization. You’re giving people the tools to be able to excavate the experiences that shape their knowledge, so that they can identify all the vital and crucial lessons about how to do things—and how not to do things. Those two are of equal value to any organization.
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