brain

Storytelling 2: How to tell your transformation story (and all the other ones)

Edgar Oliver, a brilliant storyteller and The Moth regular, whose astonishing story  'The Apron Strings of Savannah'  literally stopped me in my tracks.  "Edgar Oliver, poet"  by Stacie Joy licenced by CC BY  -ND 2.0.

Edgar Oliver, a brilliant storyteller and The Moth regular, whose astonishing story 'The Apron Strings of Savannah' literally stopped me in my tracks. "Edgar Oliver, poet" by Stacie Joy licenced by CC BY-ND 2.0.

'So, what's your story?' I was asked at an event recently. An odd opening gambit (I prefer 'hello') and, I thought, an irritating one. But then, storytelling is everywhere, no longer the preserve of savvy brands and eager politicians.

Sometimes it can seem you as if you don't exist without an explanatory back story. Who you are, what you do, why you do it, your "transformational moment". And I'd be tempted to complain about this ubiquitous obsession* were it not that storytelling is such a powerful tool.

We know from the science that stories have a compelling impact on the human brain. And you probably know from experience that, done well, storytelling can reach hearts and minds much faster than facts alone.** But having established that a) stories are powerful, and b) you need some up your sleeve, how do you go about crafting them?

Generating material for your story

It can be difficult to know what to say or where to start your story. And when you’re under the cosh it can be difficult to remember why you even cared in the first place. So below, we share one of the processes we use to help our clients generate material, practice storytelling, and clarify the impact they want to make.

My top tip is not to be too prescriptive. Don't discard strong material that doesn't fit in a particular story – use it elsewhere. After all, several stories are better than one, and it's useful to have a few ready for different audiences and purposes. Apart from the final step, the process will probably take about 20-30 minutes.

1. What do you care about?

In unpacking this, you might think about: 

  • Your personal values  
  • Why they’re your personal values – what it is that fundamentally connects you to these values and makes them part of you 
  • A time or times you’ve demonstrated your values at work, why you did so, what happened, and the emotions you both felt at the time and feel now looking back  
  • A time or times when other people have shared your values at work, why you think they did so, what happened, and the emotions you felt at the time and feel now looking back 

2. How do your personal values map onto your working life?

They might be expressed in the type of work you do, or in the organisation or clients you work with. And they might not. You might live your values at work in how you engage with the people around you, and in how they engage with you. Or even in what your work enables you to do outside of work. Either way, work out what matters to you. Avoid the stock answer; your own story is usually the most compelling.

3. Think of an experience at work that encapsulates and illustrates one or some of those values.

It might be something that happened on a project. It might be a client's off the cuff remark. It might be something outside work that made you look at it afresh. It could be good, bad, ugly or none of the above. Whatever it is, note how it makes you feel, and hold that emotion at the forefront.

4. Identify your audience

Who are you (perhaps theoretically) telling this particular story to? What do you want them to feel upon hearing it? Unsurprisingly, that clarity of purpose is Very Useful in defining and refining the content...!

5. Begin

Yep, this is the bit where you actually have to create something. So abandon self-criticism. The point is to generate first, and refine second.

Start with the emotion. Describe that experience in terms of how it made you feel at the time, what happened, and how you feel about it now. Keep it short – two minutes should suffice to begin with. Have a few goes, keeping the bits you like and switching or ditching the bits you don't.

6. Phone a friend

Or, better still, talk to them face to face. Tell them your story and ask them for feedback, e.g.

  • What the most important aspect of your story was
  • What they were moved or struck by in the story
  • How it made them feel
  • What that feeling made them want to do
  • What you could stop/start/continue/shift to make your story stronger

7. Launch

Cut to the chase and test your story in the real world. Networking events are great for this, as you get several chances in an environment designed for short attention spans. Either way, make sure you find out what other people are hearing in your story, and then refine, adapt and adjust as required to help it land.

Do drop us a line if have any questions, would like to know more, or would like help with your own or your organisation's storytelling. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

*I wondered if this obsession might be correctly termed 'mythophilia'. But that turns out to be something else entirely. And possibly NSFW.

** This emphasis is important: underpinning your story with compelling facts can help it fly. And actual, as opposed to alternative, facts are not only valuable but may never have been so vital.

Storytelling 1: The Science of Storytelling

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via  Wikimedia Commons

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Our world is awash with stories.

Not only ones we seek out, but others we're confronted with whether we like it or not. True stories, fictional stories, fictional stories purporting to be true stories… They feature in every aspect of our daily lives, from business to politics to leisure.

And for good reason. Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool. It alters the activity in your brain, influencing not only what you think and feel, but how you act. Which is quite useful if you’ve ever needed to convince someone of something – whether it’s that they should donate to charity or hire you for your dream job.

There’s a fascinating – and growing – body of research into the science behind storytelling. Labs across the world are exploring how stories impact on the human brain – from how we understand them to their role in communication.

Curious? Read on for three examples (referenced below) you might find useful when telling your own stories. And for insightful analysis of what to do with this all storytelling, do check out Sisonke Msimang's excellent Ted talk.

1. Simulation of reality

Hearing or reading a story creates a simulation of reality in your brain. In other words, your brain processes the story as if you were actually experiencing its events first-hand.[i] That ‘real’ experience can provide a useful short-cut to improving understanding and emotional connection between storyteller and audience.

2. Emotion and empathy

Emotionally arousing stories raise the pain thresholds of the audience, and increase their sense of group bonding.[ii] Stories with a strong emotional and dramatic arc are also more likely to inspire empathy in the audience and influence their subsequent actions (such as charitable giving) than stories that are emotionally neutral.[iii] [iv] 

3. Alignment and communication

Storytelling “couples” or aligns your brain with that of your listener. When you tell people a story, their brain activity begins to mirror yours and you interpret the story in the same way. The stronger the similarity in your brain activity, the better the communication between you and your listener(s).[v] [vi] Uri Hasson’s Ted talk, though a few years old now, is useful for a quick overview of some of this research – and why it matters.

This is the first of our three-part series on storytelling. Do drop us a line if you have any questions, or would like to know more about how you can use storytelling more effectively at work. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.


[i] Oatley, K (2012), The Cognitive Science of Fiction. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 3(4), 425-430.

[ii] Dunbar RIM, Teasdale B, Thompson J, Budelmann F, Duncan S, van Emde Boas E, Maguire L. (2016) Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding. Royal Society open science, 3: 160288.

[iii] Barraza, J., Alexander, V., Beavin, L. Terris, E., & Zak, P. (2015). The heart of the story: Peripheral physiology during narrative exposure predicts charitable giving. Biological Psychology. 105, 138-143.

[iv]  Zak, P. J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2.

[v] Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(32), 14425–14430

[vi] Liu, Y., Piazza E., Simony, E., Shewokis, P., Onaral, B., Hasson, U., Ayaz, H. Measuring speaker–listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy. PRE-PRINT. bioRxiv preprint first posted online Oct. 16, 2016; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/081166.

Why singing improves well-being

People singing

I'm sometimes asked why we use singing in our sessions. I'm not surprised – and not only because singing is, ahem, a touch unusual in leadership development. Thing is, however natural it might be, singing comes with baggage. It’s always a loaded concept, whether that's with feelings of joy or outright fear, or something in between.

And actually, in our work, all of that is useful.

That element of fear and exposure can help you notice how you respond to risk and uncertainty. And do so in a way that’s not only immediate, but that is all-encompassing: physically, intellectually and emotionally. In pulling you out of your comfort zone, singing can take you to a place of stretch. And that, we know from recent research, is where most of us learn best and most memorably.

It's even likely that, because it’s a bit risky, singing actually increases your resilience. We're currently collaborating with neurobiologists at Ashridge Business School to find at whether public singing creates templates in your brain that help you tackle other challenges more easily. We'll keep you posted on our findings!

So I embrace that element of fear. And one of the things I find fascinating about singing is how quickly it can take you from that place of fear to one of connection, trust, and well-being. And for lots of people, it can happen within the space of a single song.

There’s a growing body of research into the impact of singing on well-being. We now know, for example, that group singing raises your pain threshold. And that it releases oxytocin into your bloodstream, which helps promote feelings of trust and safety.

Singing also enables fast social bonding. It breaks the ice so you feel closer as the group, even if you don’t yet know anything about each other. The team behind this research also suggest that the social bonding effect of singing may even have been vital in enabling modern humans to sustain larger social networks than their evolutionary ancestors. And that, in turn, may have helped them colonise risky environments worldwide. Those early singers were no slackers.

When you sing with other people your heartbeats sychronise – which may explain why singing together can create a sense of shared perspective. Choral singing can certainly improve mood, enhance quality of life, and lead to greater happiness, reduced stress and better emotional well-being. But, whether you sing alone or with others, the simple act of singing raises your heart rate variability, which in turn improves both your well-being and social cognition.

And we think that singing with someone else improves your social intelligence. with, again, an impact on well-being. We're currently developing research with neuroscientists at University College London to examine brain activity during joint singing, and its impact on interaction and well-being.

As you might have gathered, I find the science fascinating. I find it hugely exciting to understand what happens in our brains and bodies when we sing, and how we can use that to enhance our lives at work or at home.

But, in some ways, we don’t need the science.

Singing is thought to be how we first communicated, even before we had speech. It's found across the world – a truly global phenomenon. It's a fundamental to the human condition. So why not give it a whirl? Even if you find it stressful you'll probably be boosting your resilience! And all you need is yourself.

This piece is an excerpt from our session for Roffey Park Institute's Well-being Forum in November 2017. Do drop us a line if you'd like to find out more about the session or our research.