Written by: Rachael Bull, Editor-in-Chief.
We’ve watched more TV in the past 12 months than we ever have before. But don’t feel bad, there are many lessons to be had from the latest Netflix series – including the power of storytelling and how it can help you lead.
As Write the Talk’s recently published research report, Can you lead without story? unveils, leaders looking to improve their communication skills can learn a lot from great stories and their tellers. There’s more overlap between TV and leadership communications than you might first think – and it’s all down to neuroscience.
The neuroscience of storytelling
Have you recently watched a TV drama or film so tense you could feel your heart pumping (me watching ‘Your Honor’)?
Or perhaps your favourite sports team was level pegging in the final minute of a crucial game, they looked like they were about to concede a goal and you were on the edge of your seat?
That’s cortisol working. The action and drama of the story – the danger, the risk or the ‘tension of possibility’ ie the possibility of reward that characters face – cause the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone, cortisol, in response. It’s part of our in-built ‘flight or fight’ response we inherited from our ancestors and is what keeps our attention. (And, helpfully, keeps us alive.)
Meanwhile, the characters that we connect with encourages the production of oxytocin. Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin makes us feel empathy towards the characters and the storyteller. It makes us care about what happens.
Great stories cause the release of both hormones – oxytocin and oxytocin – creating purposeful empathy for the characters involved (and the storyteller, where relevant) and their fate.
We even turn the story into our own experience. As our research explains, when we hear a story or watch a film, our brain’s mirror neurons cause us to feel the same emotions that we see or hear the characters experience. We feel like we’re part of the action. It’s so powerful that we have the physical symptoms we’d have if we were in the middle of the action, experiencing it ourselves rather than just watching it.
Taking it back to business
This is hugely powerful, not only when creating a hit TV drama but also leading in organisations – a compelling narrative helps audiences get behind a company’s story so that they’re living and breathing it and feel emotionally connected to the story, the characters and the storyteller.
When using story in leadership, we’re obviously not after the racing heart and sweaty palms. But we do want people to feel engaged, entertained and inspired over the long term. We want connection.
Seeing story in action
A great example of building empathy before laying out a vision for the company through story is Robin Eckert’s first day as Mattel’s CEO back in 2001. Mattel was a troubled company in a new industry to Eckert, who’d worked at Kraft Foods his entire career. ‘Morale was at an all-time low… Mattel no longer knew what it was or what it stood for.’ At his introductory meeting to Mattel employees, he had to reassure them that things would get better, set out the company’s new vision and mission, and create momentum for the changes ahead.
How did he break the ice? He opted for a simple, personal anecdote – one that showed them he was one of them – poking fun at the humorously bureaucratic process of getting his ID badge done just before the meeting. Every one of the 30,000 Mattel employees could relate to the experience of being marched unceremoniously to the security office, sitting on the little stool and saying “Cheese!” for the photo. Through that story, they knew they had a leader they could relate to. It was a leveller. From there he went on to set out the vision of the company and the areas he wanted to focus on. Interestingly, questions that followed focused mainly on his family, how old his kids were, where they were moving to etc. His identity badge story had shown them his down-to-earth nature and they connected with it – and him.
Would their response have been the same if Eckert had kicked off a slideshow of company priorities and data? I doubt it.
To learn more about how leaders can use story to build culture, motivate people, build relationships and encourage empathy, make sure you read Write the Talk’s latest research, Can you lead without story?