As the summer ends and many of us contemplate a return to the office, anxiety abounds. Fears about Covid... care arrangements for elderly parents and young children... all on top of the transitional anxiety provoked by the abrupt change of routine. According to a report from the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 50% of Americans say they feel anxious about resuming in-person interactions post-pandemic.
One tool that can help tremendously with this re-entry anxiety is storytelling. Hard-nosed business types sometimes dismiss storytelling as fluffy, something best left to primary school teachers. But storytelling can be a crucial tool in the workplace for helping teams understand complexity, establish common ground, and elicit participation and collaboration with stakeholders.
Why storytelling is such a powerful workplace tool
And employees want more of it. In iOpener's August 2021 “Your Leaders’ Communication Skills” Quick iOpener Survey (QiS), storytelling was listed as the second most-needed form of communication. Here's the first of two posts on why storytelling is such a powerful workplace tool:
- Reducing complexity. Stories are a terrific tool for reducing complexity. They can break down complicated ideas into something relatable and translatable. They also help you to create a coherent narrative about yourself, and your brands. In the late 1990's, for example, the delivery company UPS decided to rebrand. UPS had to think hard about how to succinctly encapsulate an over-arching narrative for its decades-old delivery service—one that began with bicycles, moved into trucks and airplanes, and then transitioned to the internet. The company came up with the following strapline: "We've always been about innovation." At its heart, this phrase is the gateway to a story about this company, one that can be cascaded down to existing employees and new staff to instil a sense of identity and purpose.
- Fostering Engagement. Stories are also engaging. Research shows that people enter into a trance-like state when they hear a story. They become less skeptical, dropping their intellectual guard and leaning in to see where the story takes them. “What’s next?” they ask themselves. And as the psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock show, the more absorbed an audience is in a story, the more the story changes them. Stated somewhat differently, stories are highly effective tools for bringing stakeholders onboard with your message.
- Cultivating empathy. Which brings us to empathy. One study showed that when people listen to character-driven stories, they release oxytocin, a hormone connected to empathy. Oxytocin makes you more sensitive to social cues around you, enabling you to put yourself in another's position. For companies designing products and services, narrative research techniques can offer a deeper understanding of the how and the why of their client's problem: How would you feel if you were in their position? Would you handle this situation or information differently? In what ways do you connect and align? For managers and leaders, stories are great way to establish a personal connection with your teams.
The bottom line? Stories aren't just fun. They have strategic value. In a second blog, I'll talk about other ways stories can add value to businesses and leaders.