I recently interviewed a very successful government scientist-entrepreneur for a book that I’m developing on entrepreneurship in government. During the interview, the scientist said, “I’m going to let you in on a secret… before I do anything on a new project, I create a narrative for it. A story that describes what it is and why it is important.”
This entrepreneur, like many successful entrepreneurs, creates a story to describe his products, instead of using data and statistics. A good story simplifies and sells science and conveys the work’s value to customers at all levels of technical expertise. It also creates an emotional connection that data and statistics cannot. Because we view it as a necessary skill for a government entrepreneur – “The Art of Storytelling” is one of the primary units of the Government Entrepreneur training program.
Good Story versus standard business writing
Here’s an example of a persuasive business narrative: “Carrying fuel and managing trash slows down soldiers in theater and makes them vulnerable. Resupply missions create opportunities for exposure. So we asked, what if we could turn their trash into fuel? We experimented with several destruction technologies and developed a prototype that worked. We placed several of them in Afghanistan for testing. We’re excited about its potential – perhaps we can use them at major events like concerts, the Olympics, or on board large ships. We’re looking for $1.2 million investment in modifying the technology for these other applications.”
Here’s an example of an unpersuasive business narrative: “…is a trailer mounted system capable of converting waste product (paper, plastic, packaging, and food waste) into electricity via a standard 60kW diesel generator. Additionally, if available, the system can use local biomass. Waste materials are converted into bio-energetics that displaces the diesel fuel used to power the generator set.”
Which description created more interest on your part? Which description will you remember? The second narrative is not bad at all – for standard business fare. But if persuasion is your goal, you’ve got to go beyond ho-hum business writing and create a compelling narrative so stakeholders and customers buy into your idea.
(Just an FYI, whenever you see the words “is,” “was,” “have/has been,” or other forms of the word “to be,” you don’t have a story!)
Our Brains Love Stories
When we hear data, our language processing and language comprehension parts of the brain light up. But when we listen to stories, our whole brain lights up with neural activity. As we listen to a story, our brains are processing images and emotional reactions, and experiencing sensations. And with more of our brains at work, we retain more information. Scientists have an expression for this: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is why stories work – the listener is engaged in a state of active thinking.
Here’s a good blog post on stories and our brains: https://www.quantifiedcommunications.com/blog/science-of-stories. And another one: https://shane.substack.com/p/how-stories-change-our-brains.
Next time we’ll share a recipe for storytelling.