The Power of Storytelling in Business

By Susan Kavanaugh

In April 2016, Forbes Magazine called storytelling the new strategic imperative of business. Contributor Billee Howard asked of her readers, “Could the time have arrived for storytelling to become a front and center issue for leaders working to develop agilely effective strategies?” Her resounding answer was, “Yes.”

Park Howell, professor and owner of The Business of Story and longtime marketing guru, would most certainly agree. Howell’s Phoenix-based company helps professionals, entrepreneurs and business owners craft their brand story to drive results through business storytelling.

“I think storytelling is the strongest superpower any of us have, and I want to show purpose-driven brands, or leaders of purpose-driven brands, how to use that power for good,” Howell said. “Ten percent of companies know how to do it, and the other 90 percent create the noise and disruption of advertising today. A great story will rise against the other messaging every time. We are all inherent storytellers, but it’s when we become intentional about it that we have the impact we want.”

There’s science behind the success of storytelling. In a 2014 issue of the “Harvard Business Review,” Dr. Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, states that as social creatures we depend on others for our survival and happiness. Through lab studies of human behavior, he linked the neurochemical oxytocin to the human brain’s signal that “it’s safe to approach others.”

The chemical is produced when we are trusted and have shown kindness, he indicated. By sharing emotions and our personal narratives, we motivate others to cooperate.

The scientific findings? Character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Translation? Stories help us connect, feel secure, and makes sense of our worlds.

Enter Park Howell.

In addition to running his own company, Howell teaches a communication program for the Executive Masters of Sustainability Leadership program at Arizona State University. His primary objective with his students is how to connect with ANY audience (even an audience of one), build empathy, and tell a story of real-world human impact that the audience can relate to.

Nonprofit organizations have been effectively using narratives to increase donations for many years. Sustainable and work-for-good companies are now building success with the process through support from masters such as Howell.

Amplitude Media, another Phoenix-based creative group, has found great success with stories. “Whether it’s to start a war, create peace or build relationships, stories have always been at the center of human history. It’s Uncle Sam, I Have a Dream, and We Think Different. Great stories inspire people to take action through feelings they remember. Businesses that understand the power of storytelling create customers that understand, connect and advocate for their brand,” Partner Reid Markel explained.

How does a company begin to incorporate compelling storytelling to make an impact? Howell first has a few questions for you: “What are your brand goals? Are those goals compelling enough to really intrigue the curiosity of your employees? What about your customers?”

To understand this process and to hear more about the power of storytelling, Howell releases a podcast each week, available on iTunes and other podcast sources. His show, “The Business of Story Podcast with Park Howell,” was among the 40 Best Small Business Podcasts of 2017. At the time of our interview with Howell, he had just concluded an hour-long conversation with Mary Rodriguez, Chief Storyteller for Microsoft, about the success Microsoft has had using storytelling about their purpose in the world.

Shortly before the conversation with Rodriguez, Howell published a podcast with guest Jim Ward, CEO of the Phoenix Symphony. In the podcast, Ward discusses his use of storytelling and how he turned around the music industry in Phoenix by incorporating it into his new branding and operations approach.

Howell’s favorite client story is about his work with Avein Lafoya, CEO of Adelante Healthcare. The organization is taking an influential leadership role in the “greening of healthcare.” On the organization’s website, the commitment to sustainability is front and center.

It reads, “We believe in contributing to a healthier world. Sustaining Patients’ Health. Sustaining the Community’s Health. Sustaining the Health of the environment.”

Through Lafoya’s hard work and Howell’s consulting, the organization has grown over 300 percent by launching the new story. “Basic stories are how we make meaning out of the madness of being alive,” said Howell.

Susan Kavanaugh is a passionate writer whose articles have appeared nationally and internationally in multiple publications. She is a certified Conscious Capitalism consultant focused on advancing work-for-good companies. As a minister and certified life coach, she utilizes stories and Joseph Campbell’s work in “The Hero’s Journey” to empower and motivate others.

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