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“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”
Hopi American Indian proverb

People who master the art of storytelling have the ability, not only to entertain, but to engage, to connect with, to teach, to inspire. Stories provide a vehicle through which we can pass on our legacies – but also through which we can exert influence and provide direction. Rule the world? Well, maybe… maybe not. Lead your people and organizations effectively and authentically? That’s more like it.

Storytelling: Just Tell It

In 1971, track and field coach Bill Bowerman sat at the table with his wife. She was making waffles, and his thoughts turned from maple syrup to treads. He’d been thinking about a lighter, faster shoe that could grip tracks made of dirt, grass, and artificial surfaces. “You know, by turning [the waffle] upside down,” he said. “I think that might work.”

Bowerman ran into his lab (with his wife’s waffle iron), mixed some urethane, and got to work. The ultimate outcome of his experiments? Eggs for breakfast from then on – and a revolutionary sneaker known as the Nike Waffle Trainer.

Shoes aren’t the foundation of Nike’s success: stories are. They are so important that the world’s most valuable sports brand has senior executives who serve as “corporate storytellers.” These modern-day Scheherazades explain the company’s fascinating history to everyone from VPs to cashiers.

Nelson Farris, chief storyteller, says, “Our stories are not about extraordinary business plans or financial manipulations. They’re about people getting things done.” This philosophy extends from internal branding to every marketing message Nike deploys. Each tells a compelling story of “getting things done” that spurs the innovation of its employees and captures the imagination (and wallet) of the audience.

The Science of Storytelling

If you remember one thing from this article, chances are that it will be the story of Nike’s innovative sneaker. Imagine if you just heard that Nike’s first trainer was developed in 1971. How likely are you to remember that? But, according to research by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, a fact presented in a story is 22 times more memorable.

Think about it: when you’re sitting “around the campfire” in today’s world – the dining room table, over a latte at Starbucks, at a cocktail party – conversations and learning are almost always story-based. We innately connect with heroes and empathize with the villains they face and the obstacles they overcome. Even if the villain is slippery turf and the hero is a 1970s art-deco waffle iron.

Research proves that stories engage the brain. Neurologically, we connect with the story on more than a linguistic level. When an author or storyteller describes heroic feats, flashes of inspiration, mouth-watering foods, or warm sunshine, those corresponding areas of the brain are activated.

As it turns out, we also connect with the storyteller. Princeton researchers put a storyteller in an fMRI scanner and had her spin a yarn. Volunteers listened to her story via headphones. Something strange – or, perhaps, not so strange at all – happened. Their brains synchronized.

As Dr. Josh Gowin explains, “When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.” They’re in your mind – and you are in theirs. So…what’re you going to do while you’re in there?

Stories for Success

A 2014 Gartner survey discovered that the very last people your customers want to talk to is a salesperson. Seeing as their job is to sell, this is a problem. Nearly three-quarters of executive buyers said that salespeople focused too much on their products – instead of on communicating value.

The solution? You guessed it. The best way for salespeople to articulate value is to share stories. Seventy percent of buyers said that “customer stories and case studies are the best way that providers can communicate differentiation that I trust.” And, only 5 percent of people remembered statistics; 63% remembered stories.

Salespeople who can create, and build on, a repertoire of stories achieve greater success. The same is true of leaders: if you can create a bank of stories that make a point, set a direction, or solve a problem – and if you do it in a way that resonates with your listeners – you can elicit engagement and commitment.

Stories have incredible power – and everyone, and every business, has one. The trick is to capture the ones that move the hearts and minds of your listeners towards a specific outcome. Whether that outcome is to innovate new solutions, manage teams more effectively, or to sell products… it depends on the story you have to tell.