The science of storytelling in HR: four reasons to harness its power

"Storytelling is a powerful tool for eliciting employee attention, and sustaining their focus," says Arcadia Consulting's senior research consultant

Harnessing the art of storytelling can be a transformative force that propels the company and its people towards success.

We know that building and nurturing culture is crucial, and that a strong culture heightens productivity and organisational success. But culture isn’t created overnight, and it can change as the people within an organisation change.

A proven method for nurturing company culture and values lies in utilising the power of a story to connect individuals within an organisation. Throughout history, storytelling has been the most potent and enduring method of communication, transcending cultures, generations and technologies.

Stories are memorable 

Stories tap into our emotions and imagination, triggering a profound cognitive response. Neuroimaging studies have shown that when we listen to a story, our brains engage multiple systems simultaneously, creating vivid mental images and boosting both focus and concentration. Stories prompt the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine, enhancing our attention. Furthermore, as stories unfold, our brain’s default mode as a prediction machine comes into play, keeping us engaged and receptive to plot twists and surprises.

Read more: Leaders must embrace storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful tool for eliciting the attention of employees and sustaining their focus. Whatever the intention behind the story, increased attention and focus will lead to greater engagement, in turn boosting productivity and producing better employee results.

Stories foster alignment

HR leaders that incorporate storytelling strategies can foster alignment and collaboration across diverse workforces.

Read more: Create a cohesive, diverse growth culture that thrives in a distributed setup

Humans are inherently social beings driven by a need for belonging, and stories satisfy this need by connecting individuals to a shared purpose within the business. Storytelling helps foster alignment through greater empathy and trust and greater commitment to shared goals. Stories enable the alignment of people around a vision, and create a clear connection between the work of individuals and the bigger picture. It plays an important role in building and maintaining a culture where employees are engaged, committed and united.

The release of oxytocin enhances our inclination to promote our ‘in-group’, which in the workplace means our colleagues. And endorphins, the principal hormone involved in social bonding, create feelings (among those listening) of trust. Taken together, stories foster alignment, inspire collective action and powerfully elevate social bonding.

Storytelling has power

Stories are quickly internalised and effortlessly remembered through the lenses of psychology, anthropology and neuroscience.

Read more: Workplace culture: values matter

Psychology: By presenting information through stories, a shared experience is created; we identify with characters, empathise with their struggles and learn from their triumphs and failures. These emotions explain why stories are more likely to be internalised and remembered, as emotion is a key driver of learning and memory.

Anthropology: The human brain is naturally attuned to stories, a phenomenon honed over millions of years of evolution, making the process of storytelling effortless and engaging even at a subconscious level.

Neuroscience: Not only do stories tap into our explicit memory system through the evocation of emotion but they also tap into our working and implicit memory systems. Information in the form of a narrative, rather than standalone facts or disjointed concepts is easier to process within our working memory and a greater volume of information can be stored through our pattern-recognising implicit memory system.

The impact that effective storytelling can have in HR

By harnessing and implementing effective storytelling within the organisation HR leaders can captivate and retain their employees, inspire action and forge lasting connections. Stories offer a compelling and authentic means to convey key messages, allowing recruits to connect emotionally with the organisation’s mission and vision in an increasingly fast-paced and information-saturated world, and build the skills the organisation needs for the future.

By Freya Owen, senior research consultant at Arcadia Consulting