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What’s in a Word? The Science of Storytelling

Josette Thompson  Follow

The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is one we are all familiar with, but what about if those words are particularly poignant – what is that worth?   Storytelling may be the new buzz word among corporations with organizations like TED helping executives become better at the craft, to grassroots movements like The Moth and their creative approach, it’s clear that there is some truth to the hype and to this art that should be further explored.

According to research by Stanford University, a story is 22 times more effective than data alone, but in financial services, and particularly the real estate industry where valuations and cap rates are part of everyday vernacular, can storytelling truly make an impact?  Believe it or not, storytelling can prompt an emotional reaction that no set of data points or financial results can match.

The science behind it all is actually quite interesting.  Paul Zak, a Neuroeconomist and professor at Claremont Graduate University has shown through his research that our brains are programmed to respond to stories the way that we do. Cortisol is released during tense moments, allowing us to focus harder on the issue at hand and oxytocin helps us to feel empathy.

While some may feel that there is no room for empathy when it comes to the financial world and closing deals, the science shows that emotion drives decision making and how we rationalize our choice afterwards.  As an example, say a major corporation is looking to move their headquarters to a new location.  They will most certainly be interested in the cost per square-foot for that space and will be looking for the most competitive price, however if they had the opportunity to talk to existing tenants of similar ilk, they might learn that the building’s amenities are in sync with their cultural style and a fitness center and daycare is onsite for employee use.  The location might also be the next “up-and-coming” neighborhood with top restaurants and shops.  While the economics will remain a top factor, it will be the existing tenants’ stories of how they like the building and surrounding location that will close the deal.

The concept of storytelling in business is not a unique one, but understanding why it is effective and how to implement bits of story into your personal, company or brand values will be the differentiating factor between success and failure. Whether it’s a project or product you are trying to push forward, storytelling matters.   This is best exemplified by the story of how a man used Google Earth to find his birth family after being separated from them for over 20 years.   By the end of the video the value of an application like Google Earth couldn’t be clearer and no Google developer spewing statistics or sharing schematics could crystalize this point in such a fashion.  This is the power of storytelling.

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