Where did we come from and how did we end up here: the art of storytelling

Written by Unleashed founder, Anouk Agussol

This picture depicts books and loose pages. Written across two of the open books is the phrase ‘turn the page’.
Photo by Daniel Schludi via Unsplash

“Stories are our primary tools of learning and teaching, the repositories of our lore and legends. They bring order into our confusing world. Think about how many times a day you use stories to pass along data, insights, memories or common-sense advice.” — Edward Miller

Let me take you back to 1940s France. Picture the expansive mountains of the Pyrenees. Beneath this scene sat a group of curious schoolchildren who discovered drawings of rituals and hunting practices believed to date back to 13000BC. They had stumbled upon the earliest evidence of storytelling.

We all crave stories. Facts are essential, but they also often feel like bare bones, waiting to be made flesh. As humans, we want to know what happened, when it happened, how it happened, who it happened to. That’s why great storytellers are able to create connection and resonance with listeners — and great orators can use their power to create change.

Every story serves a purpose — to educate, to entertain, to inspire, to rekindle hope in dark times, to make us think. Telling our stories and having others bear witness can also be a powerful tool to foster reconciliation and healing. In this article, we’ll explore practical and powerful ways that leaders can use storytelling with their teams to do all of the above.

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here” — Sue Monk Kidd

In business, storytelling is a vital tool for leaders who want to create engaged and high performing teams. In fact, it is often the story of ‘why’ they started their business and their version of how this will make for a better future that enables founders to gain investment and recruit a team. Those early stories attract a team with a shared sense of purpose, which fosters belonging and connection.

I’m fortunate enough to regularly speak to many founders at the very early stages of building their business, and I never fail to be inspired when they speak with clarity and emotion about their personal purpose and their businesses purpose (mostly these are intertwined). As businesses grow, and oftentimes partially as a result of pressure from investors, those initial stories, that initial purpose gets a little lost. Where we came from and how we got here seem to no longer matter compared to where we are going.

This future focus is understandable. However, it is a mistake to set aside storytelling when aiming for growth. History itself is a series of narratives rich with insight and lessons learnt. The history of your business is no different. As well as your ‘founding story’, there will be others that have defined who you are today. How you responded to unforeseen challenges, made difficult decisions, came together as a team to slay whatever dragon you were up against. Stories are vital if you want to connect your team to your purpose even as you grow; they’re key to integrating new starters into your team.

At a minimum, everyone in your business should know the story of…

  • When, how, where and why the business started (if you’re curious about our when, how, where and why, take a look here)
  • Where you are now
  • How you got there
  • Wins along the way
  • Setbacks along the way
  • What you learned

And last but certainly not least…

  • The stories behind your values — as words or phrases alone, these will never resonate in the way you want them to. If you want your team to live and breathe them, you have to breathe life into them through stories.

Once you’ve forged your ‘founding stories’ there are many other stories worth thinking about — we’ll explore some of the most powerful below.

“Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought… It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining.” — Mark Turner, cognitive scientist, linguist, and author

Being flexible, agile and resilient (words that we are sometimes sick of hearing) are critical for startups and scaleups. All of these require the ability to deal with change well. But change is hard to deal with given that we all have, to differing degrees, a need for certainty (in fact, this is one of our fundamental needs as human beings — more on this later). Yet we all know that certainty is hard to come by. So what do we do as leaders?

We tell the story. When change is constant, providing clear communication so that your team knows what is around the corner, or even what could be around the corner provides reassurance. It also has the added benefit of inviting people to be agents of change rather than passive recipients of it. By sharing the story, even if it is a predicted one, you invite people to shape it, and make sense of the role they play within it.

Storytelling a path forward is a surefire way to manage change on both an individual and a company level.

If you’re struggling with knowing where to start, try this simple framework:

  • Where we’re headed (pick your timeframe — 12, 24, 36, 60 months);
  • Referring back to those founding stories — explain how given the previous setbacks experienced, you don’t necessarily expect that it will be smooth sailing along the way;
  • Chat about the milestones that you’re going to celebrate;
  • Chat about what could go wrong;
  • Chat about how you’re going to work together to get through the tough times and how you expect your team to work.

This kind of information enables people to visualise, anticipate, and crucially also challenge your vision (you’ll note that for the last 3 bullet points we’ve explicitly noted that you should be talking these through with your team — think of this as editing!). Sometimes, your story might be rewritten almost before it’s had a chance to begin. That’s ok — it just means the opportunity for another blank page.

The bottom line is that if people are expecting change and have some visibility on the hurdles ahead, it makes it so much easier for them to prepare.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” ― Graham Greene

As a leader, one truism worth bearing in mind is that we are all the heroes of our own story. This (perfectly natural) impulse can often stop us from seeing the whole picture. Characters in stories grow and mature, they make mistakes, they learn and grow and they experience emotion. It is incredibly important to remember that, and also make time to regularly listen to your team’s stories in order to be able to challenge your own thinking and ensure you’re doing everything you can to enable and support them to create a better story, together.

We’ve seen first hand at Unleashed how listening to a variety of stories within any one business can increase the impact of the work we do exponentially. It’s at the core of our design thinking approach — to listen, learn and build from what we hear from leaders and their teams.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you” Maya Angelou

Listening to the stories of others can also be incredibly powerful during and after any event that fundamentally changes your business — for example, after a round of redundancies.

No matter how supportive your approach might be, how clear your narrative around why you’ve had to make these difficult decisions, such events can still be hugely challenging for your team — and understandably so. One of the simplest — and most often overlooked — ways to help your team process such changes is by bearing witness to their stories. If you’re able to listen without judgement and validate the emotional reactions, you’ll be rewarded with valuable feedback about how to make things better going forward.

The neuroscience of storytelling

Storytelling’s power is rooted in how our brains work. Neuroscientists have identified five key interpersonal needs that we all share, bringing them together through the SCARF model. When these needs are taken care of, we feel safe and are more likely to be happy and engaged at work. Conversely, when these domains are threatened, we have exactly the same response as if we were physically threatened — that is, we move into fight, flight or freeze mode.

Storytelling can feed our interpersonal needs across all of the SCARF domains:

Status — sharing stories is a great equaliser when it’s reciprocal — enabling your team to see you as a person rather than just a ‘the boss’ builds trust, whilst learning more about the stories that shaped each of your team members can help you understand what’s important to them.

Certainty — storytelling can lend us certainty even amongst constant change by providing insight into what might be around the corner, and reminding your team of the resources you have to deal with what’s ahead, together.

Relatedness — this one is fairly straightforward — storytelling builds empathy and understanding.

Fairness — when you receive and listen to the stories of others without judgement, they will hold your stories with care, too.

Autonomy — the more context your team has; the more clarity on your vision, mission and purpose, the more enabled they’ll be to make independent decisions in line with your values and business goals.

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”― Frank Herbert

Perhaps the greatest thing about using storytelling as a leadership tool is that it is limitless. It can move and meander, and can feature chapter upon chapter without an end in sight. And include all the characters that will make it as meaningful as you want it to be. But the first step is to start telling it. So, what’s your story?

If you’re craving more great stories, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Head on over to our website and sign up for our monthly newsletter, Unleashed Thinking.