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It’s the TV series that has grabbed the attention of the nation, bringing about action on a 20-year-old scandal – and it’s a great example of the power of story

It was nearly 24 years ago that Alan Bates, a sub-postmaster at Craig-y-Don, a suburb of Llandudno, first reported problems with the Horizon IT system to the Post Office. 20 years ago, Computer Weekly reported the story. Over the last two decades various journalists and politicians have taken up the case of the thousands of sub-postmasters who were wrongly held accountable for losses and 983 of them who received criminal convictions.

However, it’s only in the last few months that what is said to be the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history has really grabbed the attention of the public. The reason for this sudden thirst for justice? A TV series.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office, a four-part drama, has gripped TV audiences, making it the most watched programme on ITV with nearly 4million viewers and it’s prompted them and millions of others to demand immediate action. So why is this? What is it about a TV series that can create greater resonance than media reports, questions in Parliament and legal procedures? The answer is simple – it’s the power of story.

Storytelling and the human brain

Give someone a fact and it’ll activate certain parts of the brain such as the auditory cortex. Tell them a story and the emotional element that any good narrative contains will encourage the release of dopamine, the feelgood neurotransmitter and hormone. A story will also activate the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with sensory information such as touch, taste, temperature and pressure. The sensory cortex reacts here too.

We remember stories around 22 times longer than we do simple facts, according to research by psychologists at Stanford University.

At Threshold, when we are training senior leaders to communicate with greater impact, the eureka moment comes when they realise that we human beings are hard wired to respond to stories. Especially stories about human beings and situations with which we can identify. According to research from the University of Liverpool, for instance, around two thirds of the content of all human conversations are stories.

Although there are universal concepts in storytelling (such as the quest for justice and David versus Goliath in the Post Office scandal) making your narrative relevant to the audience is essential.

Learning and the landscape of concerns

Whatever the context, a story must relate to issues, experiences and events that are relevant to the audience. We call this the “landscape of concerns”. The quest, the emotions and the essential human element of the characters must be something that those hearing the story can relate to. This is particularly important when stories are being told in a learning and development context – making the lessons and key messages relevant to the learner and their experiences produces a much better result than if there’s no direct, immediate connection.

As we’ve discussed previously here, research shows that learning is only effective when immediately and directly associated with managing real-world leadership challenges and solving real world leadership problems. According to what is known as the “affective context model” we only really remember what we care about. Stories and the lessons that they’re intended to teach must therefore map directly and clearly onto the leader’s “landscape of concerns.”. We must demonstrate how learning connects directly, with what participants care about in the moment.

So many learning and development programmes get things back to front

Because they all too often neglect the power of the story, the “affective context model” and that connection with the real world, too many conventional leadership development programmes get things back to front. They teach abstract, conceptual models and then work back to how these can be applied in the real world. The most effective leadership development reverses this and starts with storytelling that is relevant to people’s direct experiences.

In our workshops, as leaders work to resolve a problem in a relevant context or narrative, they deconstruct and draw out the lessons for themselves. They can then practice techniques in simulated conditions with a facilitator.

Everyone has visited a post office at some point in their lives and that’s another reason why Mr Bates vs The Post Officehas such resonance – along with its powerful human element and that timeless quest for justice and fairness that drives so many great stories. Incorporating this relevance into powerful narratives is the key to grabbing and retaining the attention of audiences and firmly embedding important learning and development.