THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT CHINA has produced some of the most distinguished early literature the world has ever seen. From the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Journey to the West, Chinese authors have been telling captivating stories and transmitting their beliefs for centuries.
Recently neuroscience has gotten involved in the quest to understand the power that stories have over us. Melanie Green and Tim Brock, from their research paper, ‘The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives‘, believe that stories “radically alter the way information is processed”. Unlike facts and figures, stories allow the listener to relax their guard and be somewhat less critical. The more engaging the story, the stronger the effect.[quote float=”right”]Unlike facts and figures, stories allow the listener to relax their guard and be somewhat less critical.[/quote]
So given that humans are emotion driven, even though we like to think otherwise, why then are people in meeting rooms across China falling asleep to the drone of presentations packed with data and read in a monotone voice?
The answer, for many is the same – ‘That’s the way it’s always been done’ or ‘That’s the way my boss wants it’. Or in other words, ‘I want to maintain the status quo and not disrupt harmony’. And yet, it is by adding a touch of interest to a presentation that is the key to unlocking a promotion, or at the very least raising an one’s profile within the organisation. After all, as the mantra goes, ‘If you follow the herd, you’ll never be heard.’
This is good for some, but not everyone is blessed with inspiration from Wenchang Wang (文昌王), the Chinese God of Culture and Literature. The good news is that creating an engaging story is not as difficult as it may seem. Legendary filmmaker, Samuel Goldwyn, once described the steps for making a great story as:
1. Introduce a character
2. Put him up a tree
3. Throw rocks at him
4. Bring him down again
This rather simple explanation is quite powerful. Introduce your topic, have something interesting happen and then resolve the issue. Many modern presentation gurus have created their own frameworks that are used by consultants and politicians everyday. One simple business storytelling framework, published by Paul Smith in his 2012 book, ‘Lead with a story‘, is CAR: Context, Action, and Result.
The CAR framework is straightforward. The first step is to help the audience understand the main characters of the story, and what they want or need. The context of the story should also spark the audience’s imagination or hook them into listening.
Once the background and characters are established the next step is to “throw rocks at the character”. The character needs to experience a hardship or a challenge or something interesting to move the story forward.
Once the character has undergone a change or an experience, the audience wants them to return safely, or at least to have changed for the better. Interestingly, neuroscience has found that stories with a happy ending trigger our limbic system, also known as our reward centre, to produce dopamine which gives us a positive and hopeful feeling.[quote float=”left”]…neuroscience has found that stories with a happy ending trigger our limbic system, also known as our reward centre…[/quote]
Business stories can be about you, your team, your company, your project, the budget, or a new initiative. They can be used at the beginning of a presentation or to help make an important point. The key is to remember to use a solid framework to structure your story, and to make sure it is relevant and interesting to your audience.
Charts and graphs might inform people and potentially persuade them, but they will never inspire or move people to action the way a well told story can. The next presentation you give, try telling a quick, but engaging story, and watch as your boss sits up and takes notice, your colleagues stop typing on their computers and actually listen to you. And, if they listen, then they will remember your key message. And that might just get you that promotion.
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