When you think of storytelling, you might picture your grandfather on the Ohio River, catching a fish that looms larger with every retelling. Or maybe you picture people gathered around a campfire, swapping tales about their past.
In modern life, we tend to believe that storytelling, or at least the concept of storytelling, is old-fashioned. Instead, we want hard facts and statistics that prove our points beyond a shadow of a doubt. The new focus is creating data-driven business strategy.
But in a recent podcast, INSEAD professor and decision scientist Neil Bearden suggests storytelling is as important as ever today.
Telling Your Story Allows Self-Reflection
When Bearden was first hired to teach at INSEAD, he developed a severe case of imposter syndrome. Despite his credentials, he feared his colleagues and students wouldn’t think he was worthy of teaching at the school.
“I realized I had this story that I’ve been telling myself about where I came from,” he recalls. “And I thought my background was a kind of handicap. But actually, I see now that it’s been pushing me in a useful direction—it motivates me to work harder.”
Now, he tells his students about his insecurities and hopes this kind of storytelling will make them more comfortable about their position.
Evaluating Your Story Helps Eliminate Bias
Bearden also teaches his students about their natural tendency to interpret events in a particular way—and how this subconscious bias can affect their emotional response. For example, a student who thinks of herself as someone who never fails may be particularly devastated by receiving a low grade or getting turned down for an internship.
As an antidote to this limited perspective, Bearden encourages his students to view their lives through the lens of the philosophical school of Stoicism, which can help us to evaluate circumstances more objectively. An Epictetus quote exemplifies this idea: “Man is not troubled by events, but rather by the meaning he assigns to them.”
Keep Growing by Improving Your Story
What’s the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset? Someone with a fixed mindset thinks that one’s traits, circumstances, and abilities will stay the same; an individual with a growth mindset believes they can change. By changing the story you tell about yourself, you can develop a growth mindset that opens the door to new possibilities. It’s about approaching a challenge with optimism and being receptive to new ways of thinking.
Bearden pushes his students to ask themselves, “Can I look for a way of interpreting what’s happened to me in a way that’s useful?” By reflecting on your objectives, he argues, you can orient yourself to reach new milestones.
Storytelling to reframe your life isn’t just about your beliefs and attitudes; it’s useful in other situations as well. Bearden recommends evaluating facts and statistics to make a business decision, while also looking at what the impact will be for individuals.
Stories Help Illustrate an Idea
“One consequence of bringing a bit of story into your communication is that it makes your message more interesting. It draws people in,” Bearden explains.
Let’s say someone wants to discuss the total addressable market in Ethiopia in front of a board of directors for a mobile messaging service. Instead of talking exclusively about raw numbers, the presenter decides to elaborate on the market based on the perspective of one farmer.
In this scenario, the farmer checks the weather on his phone every day so he can grow a healthy crop. But there’s a problem: the phone plan is prohibitively expensive. It’s also difficult to share this information across his team of employees, many of whom don’t have unlimited messaging services or data. How can the farmer incorporate weather updates into his business practice and then scale that practice across multiple properties?
This kind of anecdote brings the situation into focus. By making the problem less abstract, it becomes easier to think of a solution or discover new product applications.
Tailoring the Message to Your Audience
In the business world, effective storytelling encompasses three key components:
- The story has to be meaningful to the storyteller.
- The story must be relevant to the situation.
- The audience needs to have an emotional stake in the story.
If you understand what your audience wants and how they perceive you, it will help you develop an effective communication strategy. “Know your audience,” Bearden advises. “Be comfortable also with the fact that you’re going to exclude some people.”
In other words, your story doesn’t need to connect with everyone for you to use it as part of your business strategy. It needs to resonate with key individuals.
Bearden proves that storytelling is anything but outdated. Instead, the stories we tell inform every aspect of our lives, including how we identify ourselves, make decisions, and expand our influence. Ultimately, storytelling helps us achieve objectives and connect with each other on a universal human level.
Learn how to tell your story by working with a career coach.