The Business of Storytelling

Stories give us meaning, says author and professor Jonathan Gottschall. “There is great power in storytelling and America’s business community has realized and embraced this concept,” he says. “But great storytelling demands risk taking and that’s where, too often, companies fall short.”

Q: Why do human beings need stories?  

Stories allow us to create a meaningful structure to the information we are constantly receiving. We organize this information within a narrative framework. In terms of why we tell stories, it’s helpful to use an analogy of the human hand. Our hands have evolved to serve numerous purposes, including caressing, defending, communicating, signaling, feeding. And, like other human tools, storytelling has evolved to serve multiple purposes, but its first function was to transmit cultural information, passing from one generation to another through tribal mythologies. Our brains have evolved in such a way that information presented in the form of a story “sticks” better.

Q: What types of stories stick best?  

Stories have an intrinsic underlying structure. They may look or sound diverse, but underneath is a common skeleton that I call problem structure. Most basically, stories tend to be about problems and their solutions. Characters struggle desperately to make things right and find resolution. In order to capture the attention of our audience, the storyteller places the hero into scary, dangerous situations and we watch the characters try to solve them.

Q: This importance of storytelling has entered into business communications. How do you see it playing out?

In my experience, business people tend to back off from telling the most riveting, contagious stories. That’s because, broadly speaking, there’s a culture of caution in business. Corporations tend to shy away from dramatizing the negative, preferring to show happy people going through their lives without difficulty. That’s not terribly evocative storytelling. If we look at the bestseller list, we see it’s full of terror and carnage and threat. Those are the sorts of stories that grab our attention.

The most common answer to why we need stories is because they allow us to escape. That’s what business people tend to think. But if you look at the most riveting stories, they tend to be the opposite of escapism. Our most captivating stories are those that allow us to truly confront and engage our largest, deepest fears, not escape from them. The risk-averse nature of corporate culture conflicts with the need for storytellers to be risk-takers.

Q: If corporate communicators truly want to embrace storytelling, how would you advise them?

Write in a way that frightens you, scares you. That’s where our best stories come from. Part of the problem in business is that people who are not trained as storytellers are trying to make an awkward transition into storytelling. Very few corporate communicators are willing to do the hard work that is necessary to tell stories properly. I hate to say this, but stories are only effective or powerful if they’re good.

Q: What are you currently reading?

I’m reading the novels of author and poet Jim Harrison, who we recently lost. I just finished his Legends of the Fall and was so sad to turn the final page; what a book. Also, I just reread John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, one of those rare books where I actually laughed out loud through the entire reading.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human and, most recently, The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. He is a Distinguished Fellow in the English department of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA.