The Importance of Story

By: Matt Gainsford


  • Call me Ishmael – Moby Dick – Herman Melville 1956 
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board – Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston – 1937 
  • I write this sitting in the kitchen sink – I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith – 1948 

Confused, intrigued or both? Either way there is something about the classic opening line of a story that pulls you in. These three openers made Penguin books top 18 first lines in a novel, and for good reason. 

Stories have been used throughout the ages to bring life to history, bring heart to the driest of subjects or as vehicles for communicating a lofty concept and making it universally understandable and applicable. Story is also directly tied to belief, which is also connected to achievement (thanks Jon Acuff). So, what is it about story that enthralls and impacts us so deeply and what place does it have in the hiring process?  

Heroes, villains, legends, adventure, tragedy, redemption, revenge, honor; people in both fantastical/relatable situations forging their way through incredible scenarios, often against all odds. 

Stories are like CPR for mundanity. Stories traverse the longest and often most arduous journey possible, the 18-inch journey from the head to the heart. We’ll get to why this is important but for now, a statistic: 

April Hiller’s excellent blog tells us that, “A Nielsen study shows our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than by cold, hard facts. The brain processes images 60X fasterin comparison to words. When reading straight data, only the language parts of our brains work to decode the meaning. But when we read a story, not only do the language parts of our brain light up, but any other part of the brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing what we’re reading about becomes activated as well.” 

When connecting with candidates you can describe a job, the daily tasks someone will be expected to take and what you’re looking for from an experience standpoint, or you can cast a vision about HOW this role is going to impact all those involved, WHERE future opportunities lie and how it may tie into someone’s WHY. 

People aren’t logical, 2+2 does not always equal 4 and even the brightest and wisest people can, for example, accept counteroffers they regret (we have another blog on this here). Story appeals to emotion and can create shared human experience. Shared human experience connects us. Can cold hard facts do that? 

Stories underpin the values of a company; stories are the why behind the what 

Companies who have a firm understanding of why they started, where they are going and how they are going to create a culture that impacts the world around them in a way that is greater than the sum of their parts are companies that people feel more connected too. 

Take Titus for example. Our story began in a desire to bring a sense of value and partnership back into an industry that had lost sight of the fact it was about people. People are what drive us (fact). Using a recruitment firm was a high cost, high risk, high stakes undertaking. We wanted to change that, and we are. The people first approach, and how it is outworked leads to some incredible stories. Imagine a company where its team members were so moved by hearing the story of how a nonprofit in California were rescuing families from homelessness (while also turning down $6million of government funding) that they volunteered their time, energy, and expertise to foster a future for those rescued. It happened (check out their story here). Shared human experience, story and an environment/culture that fostered a WHY, combined with people who BELIEVED they could make a difference led to something amazing, and compelling; now that’s a story! 30×30 – $30 Million given by 2030… there’s a story in there too. 

Sharing stories with future candidates gives them a picture of what’s possible and what they can write themselves into. What about the stories you can share of how this role will impact their life? Does it offer a shot at redemption (are they coming from a toxic environment)? Will it give them the opportunity to relocate and change their (and the lives of those around them). Connecting your company values to your story humanizes your company making you eminently more connectable. 

The Job Description is Dead. Long Live the Performance Profile.  

We are in the talent optimization business so it would make sense to place a nod into the function of story in hiring best practices. 

Performance Profiles are to Job Descriptions are what stories are to instruction manuals. Imagine this, and track with me here. You could have an instruction manual for a chair from a famous Scandinavian flat pack furniture store known for their unfathomably tasty (and affordable) meatballs which might show you how to put the chair together, and you end up with a chair, a functional and usable item. A Performance Profile would give context to the chair, context which would bring life to the impact of the chair on the environment, and the possibilities of what it could be utilized for (not that people are chairs).  

According to Titus VP, Ben Murphy, “Many job descriptions list out the duties and responsibilities which can get you started on the performance objectives that employee should be working to achieve. However, they also often contain a lot of fluff. Take a look at your job description and pull out the KPIs/OKRs for the role. In other words, what are the things you’ve laid out as the expected accomplishments for someone in this role?”. 

The difference between what you “do” and what you “accomplish” is where the story lies.  

You get the idea. Stories draw people in and involve them in an exchange. 

Story and Belief – Our People Drive our Companies 

If you have had the privilege of hearing Mike Foster speak, you’ll know the importance and foundational value he places on story. Mike joined us in October 2021 at our annual Progress conference and recently jumped in on our weekly huddle and made an immediate effect on our people. Even through Zoom you could feel the palpable response to his unpacking of the impact of the stories we tell ourselves on what we are able to achieve. Mike remarks, we’ve told ourselves stories about who we are and what we bring into the world but most of those stories aren’t the best ones—-they end up hijacking our true identities. Those stories become thick walls that close us out from living strong and free.”.  

 Jon Acuff also touches on this in his recent book, Soundtracks and in this YouTube video, The Stories That Hold Us Back. According to Acuff, “Your thoughts aren’t something you have, they are something you hone. It’s a double edge sword; optimistic, enthusiastic thinking compounds over time to create amazing things, while a multitude of mental woes can dampen our willingness to go bigger.” 

So, what does this have to do with business and hiring strategies in particular? It has everything to do with those things. At Titus we are passionate about, and intentionally focused on putting the right people in the right seats and a part of that is finding people whose stories (values, motivators and what makes them tick) resonate with our Partner’s stories. What about the people already on your team? This applies to that too. If you can equip your managers to be coaches who can help understand the stories of their people and encourage them in a meaningful and connected way, you’re on to something. The result could be greater levels of engagement and retention, and, when the time comes, to be able to say goodbye without burning bridges (which is huge when you are looking to attract new talent). What this will also do is to empower your people to achieve more than they thought possible, which is going to have an INCREDIBLE impact on your culture and company performance.  

More than recruiters, Titus Talent Strategies are a team of Talent Optimizers. We empower companies to put the right people in the right seats through informed, connected strategies that combine data with an empathetic understanding of what makes people tick. We also know how to deliver unwelcome news and have people thank us for it. 

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