What Hollywood can teach us about storytelling in business

The famous Hollywood sign

How to structure and bring your stories to life.

With millions flocking to cinemas around the world to see Oscar-winning movies, it struck me we have something to learn from Hollywood’s stunning ability to tell stories and engage audiences.

In an earlier blog, I spoke about the power of storytelling in business as a tool to help communicate strategy. Now, I turn to how to structure and bring your stories to life – with a little help from Tinsel Town and indeed from science.

First, the science bit. Many of us have been trained to deliver information in a certain way, based on Western intellectual tradition:

  • Define the problem
  • Analyse the problem
  • Recommend the solution.

(Recently, we’ve added a new dimension – put it on PowerPoint).

All good logical stuff, but it doesn’t exactly stir the soul or fire the imagination. It doesn’t inspire people to action. Why not?

Leo Widrich has posted an excellent paper in which he explains that when we use boring bullet point lists in PowerPoint, only the part of the brain that decodes words into to meaning is activated. That’s it; no more. It’s no wonder so many presenters die in a hail of bullets – all of them on PowerPoint!

Widrich goes on to explain that when we listen to a story, the language processing parts of our brain are activated, just as before, but in addition the areas of the brain that experience events are triggered too. The whole brain gets involved, helping to make your communication more meaningful and memorable.

So, to bring your stories to life use language that appeals to the senses:

  • “I knew we had a problem, you could feel the tension in the room.”
  • “In the pause before he answered, there was the kind of silence that’s rare in a conference – all you could hear was the background hum of the air conditioning.”
  • “She added vivid colour to the picture of what we needed to be doing differently.”
  • “We handed out the launch materials. They smelt like a new car brochure.”
  • “We toasted the future with champagne. The taste reminded me of successful days.”

Then there are the words to avoid – in particular, jargon, your own company jargon (there’ll be plenty of that) and management buzzwords. Phrases such as “thinking outside the box”, “strategic imperatives” and “our people are our greatest asset” are so overused the brain barely registers them. Paula Kluger put forward 12 of the most annoying buzzwords in a recent Ragan post. “Synergy”, “seamless” and “leverage”, anyone?

When it comes to how to structure stories, we can take inspiration from Hollywood. In storytelling terms, a great movie has four key elements:

1. Characters – Heroes and heroines the audience can identify with and feel empathy for. In Star Wars, we meet farm boy Luke Skywalker being brought up as an orphan. In business, your heroes and heroines could be your staff or customers.

2. Plot – The journey your heroes and heroines go on that the audience is drawn into from the beginning. We hear we need to rescue Princess Leia and defeat the evil Empire. In business your journey might be moving from the old way of doing things to a new way forward.

3. Conflict – Clearly recognisable challenges or difficulties your heroes and heroines face along the way, often many and varied. (And often repeated ad nauseam – as viewers of Finding Nemo will testify!) In Star Wars, we fight the ultimate bad guy, Darth Vader. In business, it is usually quite easy to highlight the challenges to overcome: a new competitor, a change in regulation, a change in buying habits etc.

4. Resolution – The result or outcome that happens at the end of the story, a situation transformed, the new bliss. In Star Wars, the good guys win, the bad guys are vanquished and the sequel is set up. In business, this may equate to the strategy delivered, the competitive threat repelled etc – always leaving a hook for the next change, which will surely come.

So in the best traditions of Hollywood, it’s time for “Action!”…

To exploit the power of storytelling in business, think first about what you want your audience to feel, hear, see and do. Those are the parts of the brain you need to stimulate with the words you choose. Then think through the story you need to tell to inspire your audience to give award-winning performances.

Next time, I’ll blog on who should be telling your stories, and when to deploy them to best effect.

(And if you want us to give your people some help with all this, you could ask us to run our workshop on storytelling in business.)