“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”
In previous articles on this blog we have shared our experience regarding the use of storytelling as one of the most powerful leadership tools available to modern leaders. It’s really no surprise, since leaders throughout the ages have used personal stories, parable and anecdotes effectively to ensure that listeners could easily absorb and integrate information, knowledge, values and strategies.
Beyond merely understanding the power of stories, however, there remains the need for specific action and commitment to become a storyteller. I hear people say: “Sure, I can see your point about telling stories…but do I really need to make the effort to become a storyteller myself? It doesn’t seem to come naturally to me.” My answer is always something like: “Yes, I understand. And there was also a time when walking, reading and writing, typing and using a computer program seemed unnatural. But when you clearly understood ‘why’ learning these skills was worth the time, you simply got busy and did it. Right?”
So in this article I want to remind readers of the compelling reasons why it is worth your time to become an effective storyteller, in the hopes that more managers and leaders will just get busy learning to tell stories instead of just spewing out information, directives and platitudes. Here are some of the many reasons why it is so worth it for you to decide, today, to become a great storyteller in 2015 and for the rest of your life:
People Remember and Share Stories.The human brain is actually structured to retain memories in story format, with a beginning, middle and end. Long after listeners have forgotten your data, they will remember your story, and the wisdom embedded within it. And, if your story is authentic and compelling they will eagerly share it with others. Many leadership stories from your personal experience even have the potential to go viral, taking on a life of their own, spreading far and wide in your organization or social networks.
Stories Engage all the Senses, Memories and the Emotions.Try this now, following my instructions exactly: I now forbid you to imagine a purple elephant. I repeat: Do NOT think of a purple elephant right now. Further, I forbid you to imagine a purple elephant on roller skates, whizzing down a mountain road at 100 km per hour, with a bright red scarf around its’ neck, streaming behind it in the breeze. And do NOT imagine the blissful smile on the purple elephant’s face as it goes whizzing down the mountain, freedom of the ride.
Ok, how did you do? The fact is, once you read my words, I instantly engaged your imagination and you have installed a purple elephant in your imagination. At the same time, you have accessed your own memories of moving at high speed, feeling joyful, bright red and purple colors. Stories are immediate, engaging and irresistible. I told the story, but you created it in your own imagination, and you now own it. Perhaps you even smiled as you had fun doing this.
Stories Allow Listeners to Draw their own Conclusions.Let’s suppose you have a personal story about an authentic experience in which you, or someone else, faced an overwhelming challenge, experienced multiple frustrating obstacles, made some embarrassing mistakes due to bad choices, but in the end, overcame the difficulties and demonstrated outstanding results. As your listeners experience your story, they are also learning vicariously: they are paying close attention by first identifying with the situation, feeling the pain of those unworkable choices, the tension and uncertainty about the outcome, noticing how the person overcame their mistakes and feeling the joy of their ultimate success. They automatically integrate the key learnings and retain them easily due to the story format.
Stories Build Trust.Best of all, in the above example, you avoided the fatal error of just preaching or “telling” people what to do. Because people don’t like being told what to do! But, they do love a story that allows them to decide for themselves what was effective and willingly apply their learning to future situations. In fact, you will gain more trust from people by telling failure stories from your own experience than by merely boasting and bragging about all your successes. When you reveal your mistakes and vulnerabilities with others, you show your human side and they automatically like you better and trust you more. This is where stories can move you from being a leader focused on ‘transactions’ (tasks) to a leader focused on human relationships grounded in trust.
Stories Can Help People Imagine and Embrace an Inspiring Future.As a leader, your success depends on how well you can inspire the willing participation, creativity and passion of others at all levels in your organization. There is a story about US president John Kennedy that illustrates the power of a vision that is embraced by all the players. According to this story, which has since become legendary, Kennedy was visiting NASA during the time leading up to the first US moon mission. During a break he went to use the restroom and encountered a man mopping the floor. Smiling at the man, Kennedy thanked him for keeping the room spotless. The man quickly replied, “No sir, I don’t mop floors. I’m helping us go to the moon.” Deeply touched, Kennedy shared the story with others and it went viral. Here was an organization whose members at every level had fully integrated the Vision into their thinking, regardless of what daily tasks they performed. Imagine, if you can, the power of a group of people similarly inspired in your organization. Are your people excited and inspired by a compelling vision…or are they simply mopping floors?