When I meet people for the first time, I often like to ask them “what’s your story?” Opening a conversation like this can be a little disarming for an unsuspecting new friend, but I know we’re guaranteed a more interesting chat than if I offer up a platter of small talk typically fixated on where people live or what job they do.

Being asked to share a story shouldn’t feel out of the ordinary – we have been sharing stories since the dawn of time. From bison painted onto cave walls, to the latest instalment of the Star Wars franchise, our shared stories are the basis on which we build societies and common understanding about the things that matter to us. They enable us to exchange information in a way that is exclusively designed to stir our emotions and shape our behaviour.

And yet, every now and then, I hear people reason that their lives or jobs aren’t interesting enough to be a story, or they’re not creative enough to think of one. And a little wave of sadness passes over me, because I believe that telling a story is the most simple and powerful tool you have at your disposal – you just need to find and flex those storytelling muscles.

So, what is storytelling? In communications circles, this word is on everyone’s “lingo bingo” sheet these days – in fact, it’s become such a buzzword amongst brand leaders that it’s almost synonymous with the cold, dreaded hand of “marketing”. At IKEA Group, we’ve been wrestling with this question for the past two years. Storytelling has always been part of our DNA, but we’d be the first to admit that in recent years we’d lost a bit of a grip on what storytelling specifically meant for us, and how we could do it better.

Storytelling may find a home in the kinds of brilliant creative work a marketing department can do, but true storytelling is more than just entertaining people, it’s about something deeper – creating connections around a shared purpose. As brands compete for attention, retention and growth, I believe that storytelling – when it’s unique, meaningful and trusted – is the special sauce in your store-cupboard communications. It can be the difference between a brand that survives and one that thrives.

We’ve learned a lot in the past two years, and in many ways we’ve also started a small movement; one story at a time. So to spare you the slog of the hard road we walked down, here are three of the most important things we learned, including what you can start doing today to practice better storytelling.

1. Storytelling helps us learn and connect with other people

As we have evolved, so too has our aptitude for storytelling – but for all the VR and augmented stories we can conjure up today, often the simplest of tales can move mountains. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt said that “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor” and it’s evident in the research that shows how kids are more equipped to retain information when it’s delivered in story form, and how people are significantly more capable of solving logic puzzles when they are conveyed through a story.

Storytelling enables us to express ourselves and connect with others. Whether you think you do or not, everyone has a life narrative – a way of making sense of things you have done and experienced, and sharing them with other people. Crucially, it’s that sharing and receiving which helps us build empathy. We read about two studies that showed how narrative makes our perception of other people’s experiences more vivid, meaning that we are more able to see the world from their perspective. As Dr Keith Oatley (an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto) was noted in this New York Times article as saying, “Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.” And for brands, being on the empathetic side of the customer holds a real competitive edge.

2. Storytelling helps brands do better business

Research by Origin/Hill Holliday reveals something quite fundamental about product stories: consumers value a product more – and therefore pay more – if the accompanying information is in story form. They showed an eBay listing for spoons which was paired with a short story by an award winning poet, which attracted 64 per cent higher bids than when the spoons were presented with a brief description.

Shifting products through storytelling is one route to growth, but it’s only part of the picture. It is increasingly clear that future-facing businesses are putting employees and customers – people – at the heart of the organisation, and walking forward together. This requires trust and, boy, are we facing one hell of a global trust deficit right now. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer depicts a bleak new era, best defined as “the unwillingness to believe information, even from those closest to us.”

So this takes us back to the first point, and the unique way that great stories nurture empathy and connection between us – two powerful drivers behind trust. Standing on the side of the many, as we choose to do at IKEA, gives people a reason to believe. It means that when we tell stories, we’re building a community around our shared values, through which we’ll meet global challenges together and stay the distance.

3. We are all storytellers – yes, even you!

There isn’t a perfect recipe for a perfect story. Sure, you can follow the textbook examples from beloved storytellers, like Pixar, for a story-by-numbers if that’s what you need. But that wasn’t what we needed at IKEA. Stories can come in all shapes and sizes, and we wanted to leave the floor open for people to craft stories that work best for them, whether it’s a pep-talk for the team, or a standout image on our website.

Instead, we focused on storytelling and the behaviour traits that sit behind it. We created five actions that anyone can start doing right now:

  • Keep your radar on – great stories come from all kinds of places, so stay attuned to the world around you. Read more, watch more, listen more, and connect more.
  • Get personal – you don’t have to be the originator of a story to share it, but it does help if you have a personal connection to it. If you need to tell a story about a part of your organisation you are less familiar with, do the work to get closer to the bit that resonates in you.
  • Share with friends – we talk about “strategic gifting”, and the notion that you can be specific about who you share your story with. Going direct to those that you – and your brand - care about the most can help build great relationships.
  • Keep listening – ever been stuck at a party with someone who hasn’t asked you a single question? Conversations go both ways, and so do stories. Be curious, ask questions, and stay involved.
  • And finally, have courage – Brené Brown says that the original definition of courage comes from the French word, coeur, and it meant to “tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Telling a personal story might take a little more bravery than hiding behind bog-standard information, but it’s always worth it.

When all is said and done, we believe that at IKEA we tell stories for one, simple reason: it’s a way for us to connect person to person. Through storytelling, we open the door and invite people to come in, get comfy and stay a while. And that way they'll be much more likely to invite us into their homes, too. I can think of no greater privilege or joy than that.

So the next time you meet someone new, ask them what their story is. And if you’re very lucky, you might just get invited back home too.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. All images from Getty.