6 Principles of Successful Storytelling

To tell stories successfully, we need to understand a little about why stories connect and a lot about how to build that connection through listening and storytelling.

It’s important to emphasize that in our method at Narativ, a communication consultancy that specializes in storytelling in a business context, listening is of equal importance to telling, if not more so. Let’s begin by looking at the basic principles of our method:

Principle 1. Humans Are Hardwired for Story

We used stories to teach one another how to live. And where we shared these stories, community was formed. Storytelling is one means by which culture is recorded and transmitted because cultures depend on communication for transmission to take place between one generation and the next. Over millennia, this primitive form of storytelling evolved into a form of storytelling that is more inward looking and steeped with meaning

The Brain’s Hardwiring

It is often argued that storytelling is the most powerful and effective form of human communication because it is wired right into our brain hardware. Indeed, story is the brain’s way of helping us make sense out of our lives, of creating coherence out of randomness and chaos. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as story. It is our way of connecting with our own past (through memory), allowing us to make sense of what has happened to us, and planning for a future in which we envision certain outcomes taking place.

PET Scan Research

To substantiate theories that storytelling is a neurobiological function, scientists have made exciting discoveries about the capacities of our brain to tell and make sense of stories. Experiments have been conducted in which people have been placed in positron emission tomography (PET) scanners, which create images of brain activity in real time. Specific areas in the brain are found to light up when people are listening to various kinds of information. If someone is listening to just a grocery list, a particular part of the brain lights up. If the person is listening to a song, another part of the brain lights up. But if a person is listening to a story or telling a story, there are a number of specific areas of the brain that light up.

Likewise, there is strong evidence that shows that patients with damage to certain parts of the brain are unable to tell stories or respond to them. This means that there are areas in the brain that are hardwired for the telling of and listening to stories.

What does brain hardwiring actually mean? It means that there is a network of brain cells that are involved with storytelling. When they fire, they wire together more tightly and efficiently. Telling stories is a way of strengthening those connections in the brain. The point is, storytelling is a skill that can be developed, a muscle that can be strengthened. We’ve certainly seen ample evidence of that through the work that we’ve been doing over the last two and a half decades. The more you tell stories, the better you get at it.

Principle 2. Everyone Has a Story

In all the years that I have done this work, I’ve never come across anyone who does not have a story. I’ve come across many who believe they don’t. Whether you think your story is not important or urgent enough, or whether you think that other people in your company are the storytellers, I can tell you without hesitation that something has happened in your life that would make a great story. After completing our workshops, every participant— no matter their age or storytelling experience—emerges with a story that genuinely describes a life event. We simply have to know how to excavate for these events.

To get started, we recommend you locate a personal story to begin your training. A story that explains how you came to be where you are right now can be especially potent. We call this your “origin story.” Then, having experienced the process of telling a story that’s close to home for you, you will be prepared to tell a business story in a personal way. That means you will be comfortable with using all the emotional might and impact of a personal story toward a business aim.

Principle 3. Everyone Can Learn to Tell His or Her Story Better

We believe that your storytelling abilities will only improve with time and practice, but if you excavate and craft your story according to our What happened? method, your storytelling can make a quantum leap forward. This method is deceptively simple. It states that interpretations, opinions, judgments, abstractions, concepts, and your thoughts and feelings about what happened are not story material. It’s what your senses take in that is proven and effective content. If you answer the question “What happened?” according to these instructions, your story will unfold in a way that keeps listeners involved from start to finish.

With the What happened? method as a basis, there is no doubt that telling a story well is an art form with many parts to it. We need to conjure scenes and people, modulate our voices, move around the room, and keep connected to our listeners.

Principle 4. Everyone’s Story Will Evolve

You may already be familiar with telling a story as part of your business communication, and you may think that the story you’ve been telling is the end-all story. You’ve told it once or twice to your team, and they all cheered at the end, so why not keep telling that winner?

We never discourage reusing a story with an established track record, but we do keep the door open to the likelihood that your story will evolve. It will evolve in the different listening environments where you present, allowing you to tailor your message as you speak, see how audiences react, and continue to develop nuance in the way you express your story. From the Narativ perspective, a good story evolves naturally, reflecting the reciprocal, mutually influential relationship of listening and telling. A good story is the spark of communication exchange.

Principle 5. Storytelling Is Every Person’s Access to Creativity

The most basic definition of creativity is “the bringing together of already existing elements in a novel or surprising way.” Creativity was long deemed the province of artists or those who had special talents and gifts, but we now recognize that creativity is also an essential part of what it is to be human.

Storytelling is the most democratic form of creativity because every human being has access to it. Your story is your birthright. In learning how to tell your story artfully by paying close attention to specific details, you are always creating something fresh and new. For example, many people have fallen in love, but no one has had your experience of falling in love. In telling your story, you have a tremendous opportunity to make creative choices. You can take a wide view of things, or you can zoom in, looking at particular details. You can make full use of each one of the senses in constructing your story.

The beauty of storytelling is that whether it is a business story or a personal one, the creativity and freedom of expression you bring to it are yours alone.

Principle 6. There Is a Reciprocal Relationship Between Listening and Telling

We cannot tell a story if we don’t feel that there is someone listening to us and paying attention. By the same token, we can’t really listen to a story when the storyteller is not aware of his or her audience and is instead caught up in his or her own speech bubble. In this most basic sense, there is a reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. This principle lies at the very core of the Narativ method. It sounds simple. And it is. As you pay attention to it, you will discover more and more how it affects your communication. Our method provides a pathway to sensitize oneself to this dynamic relationship between listener and teller and to utilize it to tell effective stories.

We often think that storytelling is mainly about presentation skills, but those skills are only one part of it. From our point of view, listening is of equal if not greater importance. Without it, storytelling simply isn’t possible. So we always begin by looking at the listening environment in our work with businesses.

I would like to highlight that ideal listening is based on nonjudgment. Nonjudgment in the Narativ method is considered a skill and a technique in and of itself, not an optional attitude toward our thoughts and feelings or those of others. That is because in terms of the purity of communication, judgment always muddies the waters.

The above was excerpted from Powered by Storytelling: Excavate, Craft, and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication by Murray Nossel (McGraw-Hill Education; April 2018). Copyright 2018 by Murray Nossel.

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