The science of storytelling and HR

If you really want to hold people’s attention, you need to hit them where they really feel it – smack-bang in the emotions.

Gabrielle Dolan, author of Stories for Work: The essential guide to business storytelling, explains how sharing a good story is the secret to inspiring action in the workplace.

Storytelling and the brain

Why do stories grab people’s attention in the workplace? One reason, Dolan points out, is because they’re so unexpected. But there’s more to it than that.

While listening to character-driven stories with emotional content, the brain releases oxytocin, a neurochemical that enhances empathy and understanding. When used in a business setting, these types of stories were shown to result in the audience having a better understanding of the speaker’s key points, as well as better recall weeks later.

During tense stories, our brains release the stress hormone cortisol, which helps us focus, and happy endings trigger the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine.

“Stories tap into emotion, and the brain processes emotion very differently to logic,” Dolan explains. “First of all, it processes emotion faster than logic, but it also stores emotion in the long-term part of our brain.

“So not only can stories grab people’s attention, they can help your listener understand what you’re saying. But most importantly, because it’s tapped into emotion, through the story they actually remember the message.”

You must get personal

It’s because of their emotional impact that Dolan advocates for the sharing of personal stories in the workplace, rather than other types – professional stories, fables or stories already in the public domain (such as inspirational anecdotes about high-profile figures).

“One of the issues HR managers are typically responsible for is: how do we get our people engaged in the company values?” she says. “Getting the leaders to share personal stories about what the company values mean to them can be really powerful.”

For example, when Anne Bennett wanted to inspire the company value of ‘integrity’ for her team at NAB, she shared a personal story about her dad missing out on a spot at the Olympics because, during the swimming trials, he went back to touch the wall, even though the judges hadn’t seen him miss it.

This story impacted the decisions and behaviours of Bennett’s team, driving “true values in action, as opposed to espoused values, which can sometimes be the case in corporate,” according to Dolan.

Mastering the art of storytelling

Some people are naturally better storytellers than others, just as some people are naturally better tennis players – but there’s a big difference between regaling friends with tales around the dinner table and communicating in a professional setting.

Extracting the key analytics, important data and other facts and figures you want to share is one thing. Spinning them into a compelling yarn that creates an emotional connection with your audience and inspires action or change is quite another. The good news is that through proper training and practice, you can improve your abilities in this area.

“Storytelling in business is a skill, and just like any other skill it can be taught and it can be learnt,” says Dolan, who runs public and in-house storytelling workshops.

Her three top tips are to keep professional stories very succinct (one to two minutes), make them relatable and always have a clear message.

“It’s all about starting really efficiently and what you put in the middle – or, more importantly, what you leave out of the middle,” she says. “And, most critically, make sure you end your story on message so it gets your point across without you being directive about it.”

About Gabrielle Dolan

Gabrielle Dolan is a global thought leader on authentic leadership and business storytelling. A highly sought-after keynote speaker, educator and author, she has worked with thousands of high-profile leaders from around the world and helped countless Australian ASX companies and multinationals humanise their communication, including Australia Post, ANZ, NAB, Telstra and VISA. Gabrielle is the best-selling author of titles including Stories for Work: The Essential Guide to Business Storytelling (2017), Storytelling for Job Interviews (2016), Ignite: Real Leadership, Real Talk, Real Results (2015), and Hooked: How Leaders Connect, Engage and Inspire with Storytelling (2013).

In her work, “Stories for Work: The Essential Guide to Business Storytelling”, she explains the science behind the awesome power of stories to persuade people and foster change, and walks readers, step-by-step, through the process of crafting your own business stories and strategically sharing them to achieve your business goals.

Gabrielle Dolan Author Stories For Work



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