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Compel People Through Story


I was unbelievably blessed to have participated in a Mississippi writers class during my junior year of high school. This experience, coupled with my close friendship to the daughter of the owner of Lemuria, provided me “access” to some of the most intriguing individuals I have ever met in person, through the written word, or both. Like so many others, I am proud of the artists, more specifically the writers that have called and call Mississippi home.

From Faulkner to Walker, from Wright to Hannah, and Percy, Williams, Welty, Brown, Foote, Morris, and countless others, storytellers are the fabric of our Mississippi culture. Likewise, storytelling is engrained in our DNA as Mississippians to the same degree as our physical characteristics. Our stories, as Mississippians, are at times uncomfortable and difficult to tell, but always engaging, compelling, demonstrative, heroic, and hopeful.

As proud as I am of our Mississippi stories and our Mississippi storytellers, I believe stories, in general, are expressions of how and why life changes relative to us as individuals. Stories juxtapose subjective expectation and unrelenting objective strife. Stories are relatable and elicit emotions. Stories connect.

So, why is my admiration of Mississippi storytellers and the exercise of storytelling relevant in the business context? Well, I believe the act of persuasion is the ultimate focal point of business.

Whether you are convincing a group of angels to invest in your tech idea, you are applying to a commercial lender for the extension of a working capital line of credit, you are attempting to secure a zoning variance for your manufacturing business, or you are inducing a company further up the distribution chain to joint venture in a mutually beneficial arrangement, the fundamental essence of business is persuasion. The ultimate means of persuasion is through storytelling.

All too often, entrepreneurs, executives, and small business owners rely too heavily on statistics, data, and ridiculously overplayed Power Point presentations as the sole mechanism to persuade others. The problem with this form of persuasion is that it relies exclusively on reason and objectivity. People, fundamentally, do not make decisions based on reason and objectivity. In most circumstances, people make decisions and act based on information and emotions. Statistics and graphs very seldom move people, but information and a compelling story can cause people to act in a very impactful manner.

For example, envision a manufacturing business that has decided to locate in a transitional mixed used neighborhood with arcane zoning ordinances. The business needs a variance and could approach the request one of two ways: (1) simply submit an application to the planning and zoning board, or (2) arrange a meeting with the decision makers in the planning and zoning department and tell the story of how a similar business in an equally similarly situated neighborhood had a transformative impact on the employment opportunities and quality of life for the residents of that particular area. Which method do you think is going to produce a more favorable result for the business?

Storytelling is critically important in other business situations as well. Many larger corporations are staffed with very talented external affairs and corporate communications professionals.These people get paid to tell stories.

In the context of corporate communications, it is critically important for a business to own their story and tell it, whether the message is positive or negative. The lasting reputational damage occurs when a company allows someone else to tell their story and the story is incorrect or inaccurate. In this age of information asymmetry and social media, this aspect of storytelling may be more important to businesses than storytelling for persuasion purposes.

I also believe the best business leaders are powerful storytellers. Storytelling requires intellectual brilliance, but also requires life experience. Those leaders with deep and meaningful life experiences are the ones that are more effective in leading groups of diverse people from some point of temporary pain or stagnation to a relatively more comfortable place.

As Jonathan Gottschall so brilliantly points out in his book “The Storytelling Animal, How Stories Make us Human,” “a society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story.” So, as an entrepreneur, executive or small business owner, be self-aware enough to not only understand the quantitative aspects of your business, but also recognize the necessity to tell a compelling story. Dig down into your storytelling core Mississippi business leaders and harness your genetically engrained predilection to compel people through story.

“Somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as telling itself.”—Henry Miller

Matthew McLaughlin

Matthew McLaughlin

Matthew McLaughlin is a partner with the law firm of Balch & Bingham LLP in Jackson, MS where he enjoys helping his clients tell their stories. You can follow Matthew on Twitter at @jxnmclaughlin or follow his blog buildingpurpose.com.
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