Storytelling in Business Communication
What’s a story?
Well, I think the best way to start is starting from the beginning:
Once upon a time…
…in a distant land full of wild animals and majestic trees, there was a cave on the hilly side of a gray mountain and here, in the dim lights of a creaking fire, a human is pondering about the day that just was.
There was a glorious hunt, a lot of mighty beasts were slain, their meat cooked and smoked, processed into needed nourishment for the starving clan that is now sleeping peacefully in the cave mouth. This man, however, is restless. Even with a full belly he can’t embrace the slumber of the quiet night. He wants to remember this day, to celebrate this success so that its memory can keep him cozy when the snow will cover the valley in a thick, white blanket, when the cold will come crawling under the rags and the cry of hunger will be torturing the guts.
Unable to sleep he stands up, takes a piece of charcoal and starts to draw lines on the walls of the great cave, here the silhouette of the beast, there his clan rushing into the thrill of the hunt. He stays up for hours painting unaware that, after all this time, we still know what happened that day:
…Or maybe not! Maybe our unnamed protagonist just burped and went back to sleep, living one of the anonymous, unknown lives of the Paleolithic Age. But we prefer to imagine him still standing in the dim lights, patiently drawing the beautiful animals in the walls of what we now know as the caves of Altamira.
His decision to paint, and this short (and probably fictional) story are moved by the same desire: the human need to convey emotions via artistic expression.
This is what a STORY is.
From Story to Storytelling
Nowadays “story” is one of the most used (and often misused) words in the current world. Stories just seem to pop-up everywhere: in your Facebook and Instagram; in TV where ads (and politicians) wants you to EXPERIENCE the event, to enter the JOURNEY; and even at work, where you cannot start a project without an agile STORY and where every training program is obviously powered by STORYTELLING techniques.
The term “storytelling” gives out more than 192 million results in Google; in comparison, the term “breathing” gives out a little more than 448 millions; and you need one to survive and the other… Well, you need it too. We, humans, are social mammals. We need company, communication, comfort and challenges from other humans. We have developed a complex series of sounds to share information (someone called this loud activity “language”) and we have developed stories to share empathy.
But, how do stories work?
Any writer got his methods, any storyteller his bag of tricks… But, as we are talking about modern storytelling, we have a mandatory start: Joseph Campbell’s 1948 book “the hero with a thousand faces”. This was the first famous study on human myth-making and how to build it. A monumental opera that compared the myths of various cultures around the world and found a common thread, shared even among civilizations that had never interacted with each other.
Campbell called this common element “The Hero’s Journey”: a voyage in various steps (17 to be exact) that a hero has to pass in order to complete his mythic ordeal: a journey, literally or metaphorically, at the end of which he can return matured by the experience.
The book thesis remained just as an academic curiosity until 1978, when a young filmmaker was desperate for ideas to improve his original script for a movie about samurai and robots in a world where western ideas fused with WWII imagery. It was an ambitious mess full of rubber masks and plaster sets, a strange mix clearly headed to a sure failure that however, thanks to the Campbell’s ideas, found a way to stick together, shaping this weird cocktail it into a movie you may have heard of:
The formula clearly worked, so it spreads far and wide in Hollywood: “The Lion King”, “Spider-man”, “Matrix”, “Harry Potter”, “The Lord of the Rings”… They are all forged in the mold of “The Hero Journey”. Those ideas kept flowing and reaching other art forms like video-games: many famous titles borrowed ideas more or less directly from the same source: “Half-Life”, “Mass Effect”, “Bioshock” and of course “Journey” all are shaped by the same lesson.
We will not talk about the details of the “The Hero’s Journey”. It’s a topic too complex and controversial to tackle it here; but we have to give it its credit: we are talking about beginnings, and it was the book that introduced the scientific analysis of stories (known as “storytelling”) to the mainstream audience.
Nowadays, there are multiple theories and schools about storytelling, with weird names like “Fractal Snowflakes”, “8 Story cycles”, “BackSpine”… And the number of them only keeps growing. But we are talking about business communication, and not movies, so we need less academic discussions and more tangible data.
Business is all about data: dry factual information that can be arranged into dull bullet points; monotonous dashboards; lifeless reports… And yes, even that stale overdue PowerPoint presentation that we are going to deliver. Eventually.
If only there was a simple and effective way to streamline the system and transform all this boring paperwork into a compelling story.