We all love a good story, and the reason is because we actually feel stories.
Researchers have found that when we listen to or read or watch a story, two hormones – cortisol and oxytocin -- are released in our brains, which shape our behavior.
The brain produces cortisol when there's a particularly tense moment in the story, because it allows us to focus. Our brains also produce oxytocin when there's a feel-good moment, because it promotes connection and empathy.
In short, there is a science of storytelling, and our brains are wired more to being story processors than logic processors. We make sense of the world largely by narrative thinking, an ongoing conscious experience and the foundation for informed (and not so informed) guesses about the future.
By listening to or telling stories, with an arrangement of events and actors, we create a mixture of memories and of visual, auditory, and other imagery and the emotions that go with them.
Joining the Family of Man
I am currently touring Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) that is part business and part pleasure. I was in Portland when I learned of the death of Anthony Bourdain, which disturbed me because of his talent as an incredible storyteller.
With food as a backdrop or an excuse, Bourdain gave us a front seat to the world, introducing us to people in other cultures and learning about how they lived and thought. His insightful reports reaffirmed what many of us know deep down – that people are people no matter where they live. Our humanity transcends place and culture.
Our stories make the human connection possible, make us part of a bigger whole, the family of man. Our stories also help us make greater sense of the world. Bourdain understood this better than anyone on television.
My Storytelling Career
We all have and live our own stories. I consider myself a bit lucky in that I have worked in two professions – journalism and economic development -- in which storytelling was central to my work.
As a newspaper reporter, I wrote “stories” that were edited and published. Later as an editor, I read and edited reporters’ “stories” for length and content.
In the newsroom, nobody referred to the copy that we produced as “articles.” They were called “stories,” which centered around people and events. The newsroom was in fact a story-making factory that operated seven days a week.
I worked in daily journalism for 19 years and know now that it still influences my work today as a consultant. I used my journalistic background in my next career plunge, which was economic development. Here again, I found myself telling stories, with the focus on people and places.
Every Community Has a Story
Just as every person has a story, the same holds true with communities. Some of those stories are uplifting and some are tragic and sad, but often they are telling and reflective of a place.
Will Rogers said that he never met a man he didn’t like. While I can’t go quite that far, I can say that I never met a community, urban or rural, that I didn’t find something of value and of interest. People make it so.
For economic developers, the challenge is to tell the story of their place in such a way as to gain attention and interest. This is particularly true with business attraction.
Look for the Hook
Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, for a story to have legs, to be memorable, it must have a hook, an element of conflict. Whether it is man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus himself, there is no story without conflict as the basis.
In business journalism, the best stories were of the once mighty having crashed and burned (or rising from the ashes) or the once small and humbled rising to the top. It’s the perennial billion-dollar companies literally started in a garage, which include Amazon, Apple, Disney, Google, Harley Davidson, and Hewlett-Packard.
When I was a business editor, I would frequently get telephone calls from small business owners who wanted the newspaper to do a “story” about their businesses. In fact, most were hoping free advertising.
That’s not necessarily a disqualifier because storytelling in advertising is commonplace and can create long-lasting, genuine relationships between businesses and their customers.
But if I could not discern a hook – a reason why the story was compelling other than “we are nice people and advertise in your newspaper,” which was the wrong thing to say, I would decline.
There may have in fact been an interesting story there, but the business owner just wasn’t telling it. The missing ingredient was some form of conflict. Again, no tension, no drama, no story.
The Japanese have a saying that business is war. To that end, I viewed our staff of business reporters as war correspondents, covering the inherent conflict, the competition of business.
Economic developers, a mostly dedicated bunch entrusted to aid and abet in the growth of their local economies while enhancing quality of life, should view storytelling as a valuable tool and look for the hook.
The Consultant as Story Collector
As a consultant, I might ask the CEO of a company, “Why are you here in Podunktown, sir?” If if he or she has an interesting story to tell, you can bet that I’ll remember it.
Interviewing the owners and managers of existing businesses is a common ploy for site selection consultants, particularly when a choosing a place for investment has drawn down to several competing communities.
As a consultant to both economic development organizations and companies, I tend to be a story collector. While it is true that I can learn much about a community or a company through desktop research, I can can get a much better understanding by visiting it and talking to people. I go to listen to their stories.
As an aside, Barber Business Advisors and the Golden Shovel Agency last month announced a strategic partnership. I mention this because in doing SWOT and labor analyses for communities, BBA will find stories worth telling and relate them to our clients. It’s fundamental to what we do. But we do not specialize in telling the stories. That’s what GSA does and does so well.
A Different Sort of Place
The Pacific Northwest has a different vibe. The physical surroundings are incredibly beautiful, and the people have been very friendly and accommodating.
The region's largest metropolitan areas are Seattle, with 3.7 million people; Vancouver, British Columbia, with 2.5 million people; and Portland, with 2.4 million people. By most standards, these cities are very progressive, or liberal as some might say, but business does appear to be thriving.
Environmental stewardship is big here precisely because the physical surroundings are so beautiful. Asian immigrants have influenced the culture here as well, leading to certain reflective ideas regarding health and wellness.
Talking to economic developers and company executives, I have learned more about the Northwest Coast through listening to (and collecting) their stories, which helps me make better sense of the place. And that is always a good thing.
I'll see you down the road.
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