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How to hook people with story to improve your business impact

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

If you’re reading this sentence, then this article’s headline hooked you enough to read on and has demonstrated the most important thing about storytelling…

Evoking curiosity.

No matter how great a story, if it doesn’t evoke curiosity from the outset, there’s a good chance nobody will read or hear it.

To hook people, the secret is to make them curious enough to want to learn more. And there are three things that make us extremely curious:

1. change

2. incomplete information, and

3. human behaviour.

Great stories start where something has or is about to change. That invites curiosity because we constantly scan our environment for change to keep us safe.

Great stories use change as a starting point. We want to know how a change impacts and how we should (or shouldn’t) respond. It is why murder mysteries are so popular:

1. Someone dies (change - and the ultimate threat).

2. Someone knows ‘who dunnit’ just not us (incomplete information).

3. Someone’s actions kill. Another’s bring a killer to justice (human behaviour).¹

Be they fact or fiction, we’re fascinated by stories because they give us insights into human behaviour and teach us about the relationship between cause and effect.

There is much written about famous fictional opening lines and how they’re crafted to hook us. Yet the same principles apply in business storytelling.

“When I broached the subject with my father, when I worked up the nerve to speak to him about my Crazy Idea, I made sure it was in the early evening.”

Does Nike’s creator, Phil Knight, leave us with any doubt in the opening sentence of his book ‘Shoe Dog’ that, excuse the pun, there’s big change afoot? Aren’t we just a tiny bit curious about his ‘Crazy Idea’, why he’s nervous about telling his dad or why he must do so early in the evening?

Or how about this from Gandhi’s autobiography…

“The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers. But for three generations, from my grandfather, they have been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawad States.”

Change surely doesn’t come much greater than this. Hmm… I wonder how you get from being a grocer to Prime Minister? Hooked.

That tipping point of change, coupled with a technique to powerfully share it, makes a story irresistible. It becomes possible to hook anyone into any story about almost anything. And that, of course, is what makes stories and their tellers so powerful and impactful within business.

There are numerous techniques for opening a story to hook people. I explore 17 of them in my two-hour voice and storytelling workshop. Here are three, together with an illustrative example of how their tellers have successfully used them in a business context:

Make a provocative statement
“Some people say that we are not doing enough to fight climate change. But that is not true. Because to ‘not do enough’ you have to do something. And the truth is we are basically not doing anything.”

Greta Thunberg’s provocative opening to leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019.

Pose a question
“The room was full of the men and women who run the British government. The question these senior officials asked me is the same one that I have faced time and again. ‘So how did you do it?’”

The opening to Sir Terry Leahy’s ‘Management in 10 words’ about leading Tesco from a struggling supermarket to the third largest supermarket in the world.

Offer anecdotes

This is Dame Ellen MacArthur’s opening in her book ‘Full Circle’ about transitioning from sailing to circularity...

“I remember vividly how difficult I had found it leaving Kingfisher in February 2001. As I climbed over her guardrails, it felt like having a part of me I no longer knew how to live without torn out of me. It was not the fact that I had spent three months alone, but ironically the fact that I was stepping from the safety of her deck into an unfamiliar new world where hundreds of thousands of people were chanting my name.”

Change impacts us all at some point, which is why strong stories are about how change affects people. How does a professional, team or organisation react to change and what is the result?

But be they cautionary tales or success stories, ultimately what we’re looking for are clues. Insights about how we should adapt and adjust to replicate or prevent something similar happening to us at work.

Good storytellers hook and hold our attention. They help us find meaning in our fast-moving world. They can change how we think, feel and act. It’s why story transforms business impact. It’s why, during his time as Pixar’s CEO Steve Jobs famously said:

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.”

Susan Room offers an interactive two-hour ‘Professional impact: voice and storytelling workshop’, which powerfully blends business storytelling techniques with her expertise as a professional voice and executive coach. She’s already delivered 10 of these workshops for one of the best storytelling organisations on the planet, Financial Times – and they’ve been telling stories since 1888! If you are interested in running this workshop within your organisation, please get in touch.

¹ Inspired by the work of Will Storr. There’s an entire science behind what makes us so curious about story and what we need for it to satisfy us. Will Storr’s book, ‘The Science of Storytelling’ explores the psychology behind storytelling, including the psychology of curiosity. It’s a great read if you are interested in finding out more.

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