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  • Writer's pictureJames Purvis

The Power of Storytelling in Business

Tanzanian runner John Stephen Akhwari was not favored to win the 1968 Olympic marathon by any means. In fact, we probably would never know who he was if it weren't for his heroic effort on October 19, 1968. What happened that day made Akhwari an Olympic hero we will forever remember and an inspiration to all of us.

While running the 68' marathon, Akhwari began to cramp up badly due to the high elevation of Mexico City (no other Summer Olympic has been held at high elevation since) as his body was not conditioned for this environment. As you could expect, the cramps caused him to slow down significantly nearly mid-way thru the race and matters were about to get worse. At kilometer 19, Akhwari tried to make a move and was hit by another runner who was jockeying for a position. Akhwari fell hard to the ground, gashing his knee causing it to dislocate. His shoulder slammed into the pavement leaving him battered and bruised. 75 participants started this race and 18 would eventually pull out for typical reasons such as fatigue and dehydration. Akhwari with a dislocated knee, banged up shoulder and leg cramps was not one of these people.

After seeking medical attention, Akhwari did the unexpected and checked back into the race and pushed through the immense pain and hobbled his way on for the remaining 23km with nothing else but his sheer determination - He crossed the finish line nearly an hour after the winner. Only a small number of people were left in the stadium to cheer for him as the sun was trickling down and the medal ceremony was long over with. Reporters made their way towards Akhwari in disbelief and asked him why he kept on and finished the race. Akhwari responded:

"My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race. - John Stephen Akhwari

Akhwari's story is very powerful and it teaches us the popular lesson to never give up and to fight thru adversity no matter what challenge stands in front of you. What it also teaches us is how you can leverage a powerful story like this to drive home an important message in not just life, but in business. For instance, Akhwari's conquest to finish the marathon at all costs could be a perfect narrative for a CEO to tell his workforce to always focus on the end goal. It could also be used by a sales leader to motivate his team to never give up even after a bad quarter. The fact of the matter is, the best speakers in the world are good storytellers. The same goes for writers, coaches, preachers, teachers, trainers - you name it. Are you a good storyteller? It's ok if you're not, this blog post will hopefully help you take the first step towards becoming one.

The Science Behind Storytelling

Storytelling has been around for thousands of years and every culture, country, religion, movement, and society has used it to share or recall knowledge dating back to the 7th millennium BC. According to Google, over 129 million books have been published in the world since Johannes Gutenburg invented the printing press in 1440. Storytelling is engrained in us and is the most authoritative way to activate our brains. Because of this, it has always been the most popular and relevant means of conveying entertainment and instilling education upon us. Despite this, the majority of us give a presentation using bullet points, facts, & figures to channel our message. In most cases, this is highly ineffective and the audience will be left with almost nothing in the end. Here's why:

Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area

When we sit in a meeting and listen to a PowerPoint presentation filled with a bunch of bullet points and useless facts, we become naturally bored and start to daydream to pass the time. The reason is, this type of presentation only activates two areas of the brain; the Broca's area & Wernicke's area. The main function of Broca's area & Wernicke's area is to comprehend language. This basically means that we dissect the words being told to us and apply a meaning towards them. That's it.

Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area

Example: "Our company was founded in 1892 and is made up of 2 operating business units. We have created 13 different flavors for our customers to enjoy which is made up of 6 different ingredients. Today, we don't offer any of our products in Cuba or in North Korea. Recently, we teamed up with Nike, American Express, & Converse to partner on the RED campaign."

The company I am referencing in the example is actually, Coca-Cola. Although this is an interesting company with a deep history and great marketing, if one of their executives got up to a podium and started rattling off these facts and figures via PowerPoint, the audience would soon be drifting off into space or taking a fake "bathroom break." Instead, let's take a look at how a story effects the brain.

Activating the Senses

When we read or are told a story, many parts of the brain are activated, not just the Broca's and Wernicke's areas. A great storyteller is able to stimulate the 3 cortical areas of the cortex; sensory, motor, and associationareas making the content "sensory specific" and more engaging:

  • Sensory cortex and cerebellum - associated with processing texture and sensation

  • Motor cortex - when we read about physical movement

  • Olfactory cortex - for smell

  • Visual cortex - for color and shape

  • Auditory cortex - for sound

5 senses

Example: "His face became a river of sweat from the blistering heat of the summer sun as he slowly hiked up the steep desert mountain. His mouth was as dry as a dust bowl and his throat was sandpaper since the dry heat sucked all the moisture from his lips like a vacuum. After hours of struggle and desperation, he began to catch a second wind and his body started moving faster as if he knew what would await for him at the top. As he approached the summit, his energy lifted like an elevator and his pain faded as if it never existed while he peaked over the last ridge. In front of him stood an orange Gatorade inside a large tin bucket engulfed in a pool of ice. He leaped towards the prize like a hungry frog snatching a mosquito. With a grin from ear to ear and no time to waste, he busted open the cap and began to slurp down the chilled liquid as if he would never stop."

Notice what happens when you read the second example compared to the first? You can almost feel the increased brain activity happening! Your imagination starts to play a role and you can picture this man hiking up that mountain can't you? This is because a story does a couple of things on top of sparking brain sensors. As you read the story about the man hiking, you probably started imagining a hike you were on or a time where you stuck outside in scorching hot weather. This imaginative process relates to what scientist refer to as "neural coupling." Neural coupling allows the listener to turn the story in to their own experiences and ideas and relate it back to the message. A story also triggers emotion which not only makes the listener more engaged but it also heightens the rate at which a person absorbs the information (this is because the brain starts releasing dopamine). A year from now, if I asked you when Coca-Cola was founded I bet you would struggle to remember the exact date wouldn't you? But, if I asked you what beverage was at the top of that desert mountain, you would be more likely to remember the orange Gatorade don't you think?


Does this mean I should avoid using facts & figures at all costs?

NO! In fact, using facts & figures in the right way will compliment the point you are trying to make and create a compelling reason to take action. It all depends on how you position it. Let's take a look at an example of the wrong and right way to use facts and figures in presentations.

  • Wrong Way: Company saved $456,000

  • Right Way: IT Director helped his company avoid bankruptcy by saving them $456,000 while on vacation

The first way is strictly based on a fact which is boring and produces little brain activity. The second way is more meaningful because it is "sensory specific" and encompasses the basic elements of a story: It has a challenge (near bankrupt company), a hero (the IT Director), some drama (while on vacation, how did he do this?), and a resolution (saved $456k). The listener will want to know how the heck he did this while on vacation!


Your Next Presentation

I challenge you to incorporate these best practices in your next presentation. Lead with a meaningful story that relates to the audience and focuses on sensor targeting. Avoid using those dull, unimaginative, and forgettable bullet points filled with pointless facts. When you need to present some data, leverage the "Right Way" by incorporating some context around the figures and adding some basic elements of a story (a character, a hardship, some drama, a victory, etc.). Your next audience would like to say "thank you" in advance.



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