How to Work With the Stories People Already Believe
This blog is part of a series, you can read Part 1 here.
When a person is deciding whether to fund, invest in, buy from, collaborate with, or join your company; they will have an instant intuitive hunch based on whether what they’re hearing agrees with the stories they believe in.
Our brains are extremely protective of the stories we already believe; quickly finding evidence to support them and dismissing evidence that challenges them. It does this because the stories we believe make us feel in control. To bring people with you on a journey of change, you have to tell them a story that works with the stories they already believe, to help them feel in control.
For entrepreneurs, looking to use story as a powerful tool for growth, this means knowing who your story is for and understanding the stories they already tell themselves.
From the moment we’re born, stories accustom people to think and act in certain ways. Effective storytelling brings people on a journey of change while making them feel in control. This is hard, because change, even a potentially positive change, causes discomfort. You can help people feel in control of the change described in your story, by aligning it with the stories they already tell themselves. Because of the way our brain stores and connects stories, people carry around story-networks that support each other. We think of these as ‘cultures of control’; because they affect our largely automatic, emotional, and unconscious decisions and behaviours.
Mapping out the cultures of control your audience already believes, so you can better align your story with them, can make the difference between your innovation being embraced or dismissed.
Mapping out your audience’s ‘cultures of control’
It is useful to think of an audience’s cultures of control being made up of three levels – myths, narratives, and stories.
Myths are human-made beliefs (they are difficult to objectively prove) that are deeply embedded in society or a sector.
Capitalism, environmentalism, and consumerism are all examples of myths held by large numbers of people within society. Sector-specific myths might include ‘on-time and on-budget’ being the ultimate good, the idea of ‘the private sector being unscrupulous’, or that certain technologies ‘don’t work’.
These myths gain their power from collective belief and being constantly reinforced by narratives and stories. It’s hard to change a myth as it’s held up as a sacred truth (‘that’s just the way things work’), but if you understand them you can work with them.
Try to list the myths that your audience believes in. Make sure you map out the myths that they believe outside of work, as well as those that come from their sector. We worked with the CEO of one international restaurant chain, who was more influenced by her personal truth about plastics than the sector myths about plastics being ‘a necessary evil in the supply chain’.
Narratives are the beliefsthat prop up a myth. Narratives also act as the unconscious moral to collections of stories people tell in society or a sector.
Narratives that support the myth of ‘the private sector being unscrupulous’ could include that ‘entrepreneurs don’t care about benefitting society’, that ‘they will mislead you to make a profit’ or that they are ‘unreliable partners to the public sector’. Narratives that support the myth that certain technologies ‘don’t work’ can include that ‘investor interest was a bubble that has burst’, ‘that it’s all hype’, that ‘the technology has failed to deliver on the hype’ or that ‘there is an inherent flaw in the technology’.
Narratives are easier to change than myths, but as they are supported by a large number of stories, it takes a large number of stories to change them.
For many entrepreneurs, the best approach is to find a narrative in the sector that you can easily align with – studies by cognitive psychologists shown that we feel more positive about things that feel familiar.
Think about the narratives relevant to the myths you’ve just listed for your target audience. Are there any that are becoming more mainstream (you don’t want to align with a narrative that is tired or on its way out), that it would be powerful for you to align with? For example, ‘the benefits of Open Innovation to cities’, ‘the ability of platforms to reduce costs by aggregating supply and demand’ or ‘large organisations becoming prosumers of energy’.
Stories are accounts of real people and events where change happens. Stories bring narratives to life, making them relatable and accessible; while narratives give stories deeper meaning.
Stories can be told, while narratives are understood or triggered at a gut level by a few words or a short phrase.
Will your story help your audience bring one of their narratives to life? Will they tell their friends and peers about you, because you illustrate the narratives they believe in?
From new crops and menstrual cups, through to medical technologies and Facebook; studies have shown that the adoption of technology requires social reinforcement – the more your story is shared, the more people will hear about it from others; the more they hear about it, the more likely they are to adopt it. The best way to make your story shareable is for it to demonstrate a narrative your audience believes in.
When hearing the story of your business, your audience will instantly look for alignment with the stories that already support their narratives. Understanding these stories can help you better mirror them; making your audience feel more in control of the change you’re asking them to make.
For instance, stories of platforms that have successfully reduced costs by aggregating supply and demand can help them feel more confident in your platform. Examples such as the London DataStore, Open Data Manchester, or Bristol is Open, can help cities embrace working with entrepreneurs. Mentioning major companies who have become prosumers of energy, can help them believe that a new market is being created.
Working with your audience and their cultures of control
Knowing who your story is for and understanding the stories they already tell themselves is key to persuading them to come with you on a journey of change. Telling a story full of evidence about climate injustice to a ‘Settler’ who has a culture of control around ‘on-time and on-budget’, is unlikely to succeed. You can’t disprove someone’s culture of control because it is their reality (psychologists call this naïve realism).
When we meet someone with a different view of how the world works, we defend our model by dismissing them as wrong. You need to try and tell a story that works with their cultures of control, not against them.
As humans, we are amazingly good at carrying around cultures of control that don’t completely align or can even seem incompatible to others. This is known as ‘cognitive dissonance‘. For example, one person can be a nationalist, a free-market capitalist, and a liberal humanist.
Where someone has a culture of control that might challenge your idea and one that might support it; you have to cause them to experience the discomfort of this cognitive dissonance, before quickly offering them a proposed way to resolve it.
This was the journey that the restaurant chain CEO, we mentioned earlier, went on. She realised that the story she was telling herself as a mother, about preventing microplastics from destroying nature for her daughter; didn’t align with the way her sector worked – plastics being ‘an economically necessary evil in the supply chain’. Her resolution came in a business case where the cost of implementing a supply chain free of plastic, was more than offset by the consumer demand for a plastic-free retail concept.
If you face this cognitive dissonance challenge with your audience there are key areas of your Story Canvas where you can help them address their clashing cultures of control:
- Ordinary World – Can you show the emerging cracks in their ‘business as usual’, caused by the culture of control that challenges your idea? The aim is to get them to start questioning this culture of control, rather than trying to actively disprove it.
- Compelling Villain – Often the damaging culture of control that they hold on to in ‘business as usual’ is the root of their compelling villain. They might be proud of this behaviour, but because of their culture of control that supports your idea, aren’t completely blind to the problems it causes. It might be an attitude or behaviour that everyone in the industry knows is an issue (they might even privately joke about this), but until now it’s been extremely difficult to change.
- Mentor & Gifts – Do you have a unique point of view that can help them to resolve the clash between these two cultures of control? They’re going to need to convince others of this point of view; how can you show that your innovation is easier or better to use, easy to integrate into their business or lives, and makes financial sense?
- Call To Adventure – Simply and memorably point out their clashing beliefs and offer them a way to resolve them with your technology?