The Value of a Story in the Business World: It’s Not Just a Tall Tale

Stories have power. Stories engage and inspire. That has been true since the dawn of time, and is as true in today’s business world as it is in any other setting. The oft-repeated adage is that “facts tell, but stories sell.” In other words, data is nice, but narratives enable companies to connect with customers, […]

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Stories have power. Stories engage and inspire. That has been true since the dawn of time, and is as true in today’s business world as it is in any other setting. The oft-repeated adage is that “facts tell, but stories sell.” In other words, data is nice, but narratives enable companies to connect with customers, investors and even employees in a way that no other form of communication ever could.

There are biological reasons for that, which we will cover presently. But suffice it to say that stories have a transformative power, an ability to stir emotions. Because decisions tend to be more emotional than logical, the company capable of compellingly presenting its story is far more likely to engage listeners — and bolster its ROI.

Think it’s mere coincidence that Apple, Amazon, Google, Disney and Microsoft all have made it widely known that their companies began in garages? Of course not. Knowing that that is part of their stories boils them down to size. It makes them more relatable, as something more than cold, forbidding corporate monoliths. (And understand that Apple’s origin tale has been debunked by Steve Wozniak, who founded the company in 1976 with the late Steve Jobs.)

Who wouldn’t want to buy a smartphone or computer from some scrappy upstart working out of his garage, even if those days are long gone? 

But the simple truth is that stories resonate, whether they tell the tale of a company’s early days, its evolution or what might lie ahead. Jobs illustrated that himself during the release of the first iPhone in 2007. He began his presentation to company employees by showing a photo of the first desktop computer Apple released in 1984, which in his words “changed the whole computer industry.”

Then he showed a photo of the iPod, which came out in 2001 and “changed the music industry,” as he put it.

Finally he said Apple was poised to release “three revolutionary products” — a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a mobile phone and “a breakthrough Internet communications device.”

He paused for effect.

“These are not three separate devices,” he said. “This is one device. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”

Cheers all around. 

His approach showed that stories glean their power not only from their content, but also their structure, as well as the storyteller’s skill. Another example would be Hewlett-Packard’s release in 2006 of a six-minute, 22-second B2B ad for its secure printer. 

It begins with two sentences appearing in white print on black background: “There are hundreds of millions of business printers in the world. Less than two percent of them are secure.”

Ominous music plays as a cityscape is shown. Superimposed over it are the words, “The Wolf.”

“Sheep never realize there’s a wolf around until it’s too late,” actor Christian Slater then intones while standing in a busy plaza, as people scurry past. “Then they do exactly what the wolf expects them to do: They run into each other, and fall down. They become dinner.”

Then Slater demonstrates, in excruciating detail, how easy it would be for a cybercriminal to infiltrate a business — in this case, by sending a corrupted email to an employee, who chooses to print it out. 

The ad is powerful, and amply displays the effectiveness of storytelling. What CEO could watch this without leaning over and whispering to an underling about the pressing need for secure copiers?

In the healthcare space, relating the experience of a patient or employee during internal meetings can teach valuable lessons and improve workflows. It is possible for the entire team, as a result, to close gaps in the system, improve the experience and ensure more positive outcomes.

The latter underscores one of the inward-facing advantages storytelling can offer a business — improved employee efficiency and engagement. The outward-facing ones, as shown in the Apple and H-P examples, are greater understanding of a product, an ability to set oneself apart from the competition and the ability to humanize a brand.

All of them are reflective of the emotional connection mentioned earlier. Psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote in his 1987 book “Actual Minds, Possible Worlds” that listeners are 22 times more likely to recall a story than data. Another study showed that 55 percent of consumers will buy from a brand that relates a compelling tale.

According to neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, that’s because such a story leads our brains to release oxytocin — the so-called “love hormone” — which makes us feel trust and empathy. It also makes us want to take some action or other, up to and including the purchase of a product.

The long and short of it is that stories build relationships, and relationships build loyalty. That’s invaluable in any business, whether it began in a garage or not. A leader would, as a result, be wise to tailor his or her messaging accordingly.

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