The Power of Storytelling to engage audiences and shift mindsets
Anne Conroy, Nick Dobrijevich and Michelle Playoust
‘Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful a lion!’. Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe’.
We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.
Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind.
Yuval Noah Harari
In conversation with acclaimed filmmaker Paul Clarke
We recently hosted an evening with acclaimed Australian filmmaker and friend, Paul Clarke, who is highly regarded for his social history documentaries which invariably tap into the often-buried storylines of our culture, giving life to myth, yarn and ballad. Paul’s career has allowed him to get up close and personal with many of his heroes; figures who’ve really impacted Australian society; the big guns in politics, music and the arts and along the way, Paul continually honing his craft as a storyteller at heart.
Paul seemed like the perfect fit to open proceedings for us and get the discussion moving on the power of storytelling and how it can be used to great effect in business.
“Stories are like letters in a dead letter office, they are all around you and it’s just a case of being able to pick up the right one and put it in the right letterbox. They can really explode if you get the right combination. There are so many things that are forgotten and when you bring them out at the right moment, they can be really powerful”.
– Paul Clarke
Trust is vital
Paul began with a short clip from ‘Between A Frock and a Hard Place’ with British actor Terence Stamp discussing his role in the film ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. In the interview Paul was able to get Stamp to open up and relate his fears and anxieties about accepting a role that required him to completely abandon the brooding, very macho persona that had underpinned his entire career … he had to embrace a massive change and it was nerve-wracking, but in telling this story, he hooked us. Paul’s accompanying message refers to his fascination with bringing about a shift in attitude via storytelling and watching it happen.
‘I’m particularly interested in change – what made us change as a culture. There’s a lot of humour to be had in the way we used to look, the way we used to act … we’re also passionate about being inclusive – finding the way to tell the story that evokes an emotive response, makes people feel it’.
– Paul Clarke.
There was consensus in the room that trust was one of the vital elements needed to bring people along with you, to get them on board, to invest and believe in the story being told. This dovetailed into the next film sequence presented by Paul which came from his documentary series ‘Blood & Thunder’, the story of AC/DC.
Paul was able to contextualise his process for us by describing how initially resistant the Young brothers were to the project … the shutters came down and they were immovable. It was a process of finding a story that was different, that they felt compelled to buy into. The dual narrative of the two migrant families – the Youngs and the Alberts – and the unlikely bond they created was so different that Paul and his team gradually earned the Youngs’ trust by bringing the entire Albert family on board to begin building the story around them. The Youngs saw the trust being formed by the Alberts and they gradually bought into the series.
Authenticity is a must, so is finding the unexpected and ‘new truths’
Paul discussed the importance of finding the truth in a narrative;
“storytelling can be a bit of a trope, it’s sort of a magnet for people who want to hide behind something that is an exciting buzzword at the moment”.
– Paul Clarke
The group agreed that authenticity was paramount and far more important than a well-crafted narrative; emphasising the fact that humans have the innate ability to pick up when someone or something is not genuine or authentic.
And truth it seems, is sometimes found in unexpected places; we discussed the value of thinking about what we know personally and using that to build integrity into our stories; and how the simple stories that are right under our nose are often the most powerful.
In particular, many found that during the pandemic, employees have wanted to hear stories about the everyday experiences of their colleagues. As they transitioned to a new working regime, they wanted to know what their colleagues were having for lunch, what was in their fridge and how they were personally navigating new changes. In a business context, it is therefore important to think about the everyday as a constant source of new stories and to remember that small stories can often resonate and have more impact than larger ones.
Engaging to change mindsets
Ensuring there is something to draw in and engage your audience from the start is key to good storytelling. This ‘hook’ is particularly important in the digital era when there are constraints on the amount of time that audiences will engage. In Paul’s documentary series Wide Open Road: The Story of Cars in Australia, he was able to engage his audience with the question: why is it that Australians are so obsessed with cars?
The power of storytelling, and the way it can be used to change mindsets, is evident throughout Paul’s films.
“the key thing is being able to change mindsets. If you can find stories that change people’s thinking, it’s a really exciting and valuable thing to do…we want to be able to make people think, ‘that’s unreal; I didn’t know that’. That is what opens up a story for them…”.
– Paul Clarke
Paul’s films are great examples of how storytelling has the power to communicate an alternative narrative and in doing so, work to shift ways of thinking and change mindsets.
What is the value of storytelling in business?
It was decided that stories aren’t always required or appropriate – and there are pitfalls to be aware of when used in a business context. Indeed, the success of a story relies on a range of factors.
Complex situations regularly call for new narratives that a team of people or the public at large can relate to. Often, they combine at a particular moment in time and this has to be reflected in the framing. The best change leaders are the people who can talk to the moment and lead people with a narrative that captures the present and the future.
We also need to think hard about the story we are trying to convey and how it can be tailored to the target audience. Our guests agreed, when a story does not match the context or the people who the message is for, it will not be an effective tool in a business context.
In closing, we watched the final segment of Karen Eber’s fantastic TED Talk: Why storytelling is more trustworthy than presenting data; as we reflected on some of the key ideas discussed in using the power of storytelling to engage audiences and shift mindsets (see our 3 key takeaways).
Our heartfelt thanks to Paul for his entertaining and enlightening insights into storytelling and to all of our guests who helped make the evening so incredibly engaging and enjoyable.
– Mike and the Mozaic Team.