In 2016, an artificial intelligence taught me how storytelling is moving from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have” skill in the workplace.
A few months ago, a TEDx talk I gave was analyzed by a deep learning system, an AI, developed at the University of Tokyo. The feedback and insights I got from the AI system were really interesting (it benchmarked and evaluated my talk against the database of all publicly rated TED talks), but it also made me think about how tools like this AI could help make us all better public speakers and presenters.
And it’s not just with speech feedback that AI is helping out. In my previous article, I described how startups are already selling services which use AI to create presentation slides for us, and they’re getting better at it all the time.
What struck me about technologies like these is the implications for us as business professionals.
In a world where machine learning systems and AI assistants can help everyone create professional, polished content, how do we differentiate ourselves? How do we each stand out and compete with what machines can do, better?
Automation will affect all jobs, not just manufacturing. While AI is not likely to replace any one job in its entirety, it will replace specific skills and activities. There are many activities and skills which knowledge workers base their careers on, but which can be done better, cheaper, and more quickly by machines.
So if some parts of our work can be replaced by AI, our skill-set needs to shift.
We need to get better at doing what machines can’t do, at what humans are uniquely good at. One thing that we excel at, and which machines cannot replicate, is telling emotion-driven stories. What we can do, and AI can’t is communicate with an audience and resonate with them based on our understanding of them. We can read each other, pivot, and deliver presentations in real time. In short, storytelling.
Why Storytelling Matters
Storytelling is the ability to use narratives, to deliver our personal experiences or the stories of others, delivered with emotion and with passion, in a way which will resonate with your audience. It is wrapping data with emotion, it leads to better recollection, empathy, connection to the speaker, what you need to inspire others to action.
It’s something that is already a necessary skill for business professionals and distinguishes great leaders from good leaders. Story-driven presentations which merge fact and emotion are what drive TED talks—it is why TED curator Chris Anderson calls presentation literacy a “superpower” and a “core skill for the 21st century.”
Why is storytelling so powerful? Because humans have evolved for it. We are wired for it. We’ve been sitting around campfires telling stories for tens of thousands of years.
Those stories told around long-ago campfires taught us lessons which our lives depended on: which plants are safe to eat, which animals are dangerous, how do we craft tools. They entertained us. They build connections and communities.
There’s a lot of science behind why storytelling is so powerful. Studies using MRI and sampling hormone levels have shown how the brain is impacted when we listen to a story.
Hormones such as cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine are released in our brains and boost memory, trust, and empathy towards the storyteller. As our brains listen to a story, they also try to relate it to our own experiences by running a kind of simulation of the story we are hearing. That causes us to use the same parts of our brains that the speaker is using, so our brains and the speaker’s light up in what is called “neural coupling.” This may sound like the Vulcan mind meld from Star Trek, but it is fact, not fiction.
Storytelling is, in fact, what makes fiction like Star Trek and the Vulcan mind meld so effective, it’s why marketing campaigns which rely on storytelling are far more effective. It is our superpower. Storytelling is a must-have skill now, and it will be even more so in the future.
It is also a skill we need to get better at.
The Skills Gap
Multiple studies looking at the most in-demand skills by US employers show communication skills as one of those most lacking in new graduates and current professionals. This is true in the manufacturing sector, but it hits knowledge workers, too. The Bloomberg Job Skills Report of 2016, a survey of 1,251 recruiters, identified communication skills as both the most important and one of the hardest to find in new MBA graduates.
And these are the gaps now, even before AI made a significant impact on knowledge workers. Looking ahead, the World Economic Forum forecasts that future workers will need more soft skills like empathy and communication skills to persuade others, to be good at what machines cannot do.
But is storytelling enough to give us the edge over AI? We need to go beyond just storytelling. We need to be able to really focus on what machines will never be able to do. We need to show empathy for our listeners when we present or give a speech. We need to read the mood in a room, understand how the audience is reacting to our words. Is our message resonating? Are the audience members engaged? How do we need to change our words, tone, and body language?
We need to show narrative intelligence.
Think about emotional intelligence. It’s not enough to just be able to express your feelings honestly. You need to be able to read and react to others. Emotional intelligence is two-way, and so is narrative intelligence.
Being able to turn on a dime, to pivot to a new direction based on understanding how the audience is feeling, is what narrative intelligence is all about. It’s being able to react during storytelling and adjust your message in real-time to better engage your audience. It’s two way storytelling.
Steve Denning, who consults on narrative intelligence, says, “The ability to think narratively—that is, narrative intelligence—reflects a recognition that the narrative aspects of the world matter because human goals matter, and narratives encapsulate human goals.”
Great storytellers are the ones who know how to react and adjust to their audience, they know how to guide the audience, adapt to their mood, pivot as needed. Great storytellers are the ones who show narrative intelligence.
Narrative intelligence will always give us the edge over artificial intelligence. It’s one skill that is immune to automation. It is the one skill which can future-proof your career.