The term "storytelling" is in danger of becoming a management fad, the subject of way too many business books and an "art form" that seems to require a mystical approach, complete with a dowsing rod and scented oils.

But go behind the hype and you'll find that storytelling is both essential and elemental. In fact, human beings are still wired the way we were in prehistoric times, when we hunted and gathered our food out in the wild, walked home barefoot, and burned mastodon meat on the campfire.

After dinner, we still want to spend our time the same way today as we did back then: listening to stories. Of course, in the cave, we told our own stories and listeners had to  imagine the video portion. Today we watch Real Housewives of Orange County on the flat-screen TV, but it's essentially the same script: hunky guys, sexy women, mystery, intrigue, sometimes mayhem.

Stories are effective not only as a form of entertainment but as a way to communicate any topic. Since humans are programed to listen when the story starts, you instantly capture attention--whether it's a tale of two cities or a simple little tale about how Fred made the irate customer happy, despite the odds.

Here are 5 reasons why you should consider using stories every time you want to get someone's attention, make a case, gain approval and sell a service, product or idea:

  1. We want to be entertained, not lectured to.  A story makes us think: "This is going to be fun," not, "Am I going to be tested on this?"

  2. Stories teach subtly and indirectly.  Instead of hitting us over the head, stories imply the message. As historian and social philosopher Hannah Arendt said, "Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."
  3. We can (safely) experience emotions. In most other forms of "official" communication, emotion is off-limits. Yet we (even men) are actually drawn to emotions: We want to laugh, cry, be scared and feel better afterwards. That is a heck of a lot better than another boring memo or a 10-page corporate white paper.
  4. Stories feel genuine, not packaged or spun.  As Christopher Locke writes in Gonzo Marketing, the Internet has created a new "campfire" that encourages the free exchange of stories. "We have gotten used to talking amongst ourselves in uncontrived, unpremeditated human voices." And now companies have to do the same. "Not the smarmy, cloyingly sentimental 'human interest' stories businesses are so fond of leveraging in support of some arcane brand mysticism, but rather, stories that come from actually grappling with the...problem the service purports to solve."
  5. The experience of a story draws people together.  Here's Christopher Locke again (who is obviously a strong advocate of the power of stories): "The best stories can become myths that draw people together, create entire cultures. The people within the culture so created are not strangers to each other precisely because they know the old stories. They share and reflect on them. They remember together. This creates powerful cohesion, even identity."

So "Once upon a time . . ." still works. That's the value of stories.