Using Stories in Business and Life to Entertain, Make an Argument and Sell a Product

Sunday December 12, 2021

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Welcome to What Happens Next.

My name is Larry Bernstein.

What Happens Next is a podcast where an expert is given just SIX minutes to present his argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

Today’s topic is the importance of storytelling.

Our guest is Frank Rose.

Frank teaches at Columbia University’s Executive MBA program with a course entitled Strategic Storytelling. He is also the author of the book The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World.

I picked this topic because I am fascinated by the role that storytelling plays in human interactions.
Frank’s presentation will focus on the changing nature of storytelling and the advent of the immersive experience in art like the interactive Van Gogh exhibits, theater such as the Shakespearean spinoff, Sleep No More, and the new storytelling platforms to come like Facebook’s Metaverse.

We all can improve our storytelling and Frank will give suggestions on how to use detail, reading your audience, and how to show and not tell.

A few years ago, my dear friend Jack Gould who is now the retired Dean of the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School asked me to teach two sessions of his MBA class. I asked him what I should talk about and he gave the greenlight to pick any topic. I decided to present the role of storytelling in business meetings and presentations.

I told 9 different stories and then I discussed with the class, why stories are memorable, how they can be successful in making key business points, and how to generate empathy.

Stories are what make us human and bring us joy.

So, with that I turn to Frank Rose, please begin your Six Minute Presentation.


Frank Rose

Topic: Using Stories in Business and Life to Entertain, Make an Argument and Sell a Product
Bio: Teaches Strategic Storytelling at Columbia
Reading: The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World is here


Thank you, Larry. I wrote The Sea We Swim in: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World, because I wanted to get across the importance of stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and they define what’s going on around us. Stories are so powerful because they appeal to emotions and not to our rational selves.

If you’re going to get your point across, you really have to understand stories and how they work.
I teach at Columbia. I lead an executive education course called Strategic Story Telling. And the students are mid-career and senior level executives.

What is a story? A story is a sequence of events that involves a group of characters over a period of time. And there are two critical ingredients: time and conflict. If you don’t have conflict, then you don’t have a story because there’s no stakes involved. There has to be a threat to your central character to have interest.

A story is a journey. It’s a sequence of events. It starts in one place and it ends in another, and in between stuff happens.

Stories are specific, they happen to specific characters, and that’s why we care about them. We don’t care about statistics.

Neuroscience and cognitive psychology studies have demonstrated this. In the ’90s this little girl named Baby Jessica fell down a well outside her aunt’s house in Texas. And, there was this massive rescue effort and around the clock television coverage around the world.

Huge amounts of money poured in for Baby Jessica. Meanwhile, thousands of children are starving to death in Africa and India and they get a fraction of this amount. The studies show essentially that we give more to an individual than we do even to a pair of individuals, that when we’re confronted with a massive problem we just tend to tune it out.

Stories always have a setting in a story world. They take place somewhere.

In the early 20th century we had our first immersive stories. And I’m talking about Sherlock Holmes, and Lord of the Rings, people wanted to inhabit these stories. And research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, we’re beginning to understand that the way we process stories in the brain is that we imaginatively project ourselves into the story.

We identify with characters. And the more closely we identify, the more immersed in the story we become.

We want to go there; we want to be there.

These open-ended stories like Sherlock Holmes and The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars for that matter, by creating a story world, you’re giving people a way into the story. And that is a really critical factor that leads inexorably to narrative platforms as the sum of all your stories. If it’s on social media, everything becomes part of our story, becomes accessible.

One of the key findings in this research is that as an audience, we are always co-creating the story in partnership with the author.

Yuval Noah Harari writes about this in his book, Sapiens. I quoted a brief passage in my book which I’d like to read to you now because it points out that we’re not just telling a story to our audience, we’re also telling a story to ourselves.

Harari writes, “The self, too, is an imaginary story just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, daydreams we’ve savored. And out of all of this jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I’m going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. The story may even cause me to sacrifice my life if that’s what the plot requires. We all have a genre. Some people live in a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few acts as if in a comedy. But in the end, they’re all just stories.

Frank Rose QA

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