The Stories We Tell and Their Impact
By Dr. Wanda Wallace
One of the most powerful tools of persuasion is storytelling. And, one of my favorite experts on the subject is Mitch Ditkoff, the author of Storytelling for the Revolution. He joined me on Out of the Comfort Zone to talk about the value of stories and how we can use them to lead. As human beings, all of us like stories. We remember stories better than facts. Stories carry emotion. We use stories to build a community, create trust and confirm leadership answering who are we and where are we going.
“Stories, connect people, build community and dissolve boundaries. Stories are the most direct, powerful and simple way to find out who the other person is,” says Mitch.
Stories give shape to vague, sometimes hyperbolic missions, visions and principles. “Stories make the theoretical practical,” says Mitch. “They make real the hard-to-communicate essences of life, stuff like courage, intuition, trust, perseverance, … things that could easily become slogans but are often not real to people,” he says.
Since we connect to others through emotion, stories allow people not just to think, but to feel and connect. In fact, neuroscientists have found that when a speaker is telling a story, the part of the speakers’ brain that lights up in remembering the story is the same part of the brain that lights up in the listener. So, they are sharing not just information but experience. That’s why people love to hear stories because they “get it” rapidly – in as little as one minute.
Good orators start with stories because they can make a connection with their audience as quickly as possible… the building of trust after a story is palpable. When we tell stories, we get better listening.
Mitch says clients he hasn’t seen in 15 or 20 years often recall a story he told them. “The story sticks… because it conveys meaning.”
What Makes a Good Story?
About 65% of our conversations are made up of stories. We know how to tell stories already. Stories have “a beginning, a middle and an end, a hero on a quest, an obstacle and a resolution,” says Mitch.
The more personal our stories are, the better. To tell a personal story opens you up to risk. But that vulnerability is essential for building trust. Too often people in leadership positions think they have to be perfect and don’t want to talk about mistakes or flaws. “But when they explain the learning based on a failure, they win over the audience and gain massive trust,” Mitch says.
“When there is a lack of trust based on past experience, one way to win that trust back is through the artful and authentic telling of story in which the teller is revealing something personal, powerful and universal about themselves that the listener can relate to and apply to their life,” he adds.
When working with people who come from different backgrounds, most people notice what is different about the other. This often creates anxiety, separation, and lack of trust. However, stories can help because “stories carry the psychological human DNA of what all people share in common. Whether you are born in New Jersey, India or Africa or whether Muslim, Jew, Christian or Buddhist, there is something about the stories people tell each other that evokes a sense of oneness, community and wholeness. Then, people start to look at what we have in common.”
Mitch gave a practical story about how he helped a large company engage employees through storytelling. The CEO wanted employees to be more focused on service. Rather than have executives lecture on service, Mitch identified nine personal stories from employees that demonstrated the value of personal service. They worked hard to craft the stories and practiced them repeatedly over several months. The end result was a lasting cultural change.
How do we encourage storytelling in a business setting when everyone is pressed for time? Leaders have to be willing to tell stories. They have to be clear about why they are telling the story.
“Start with ‘why?’. What is the message I’m conveying? What do I want to leave people with? What is the moral of the story?” Mitch advises that leaders make a list of stories they already tell. Then make a second list of themes and messages that you have no story for. Ask people if they know of a story on that theme. Or, google stories on courage for example, stories on collaboration, etc. “Look for people in the organization who are already good, confident story tellers,” says Mitch. Borrow from them and then make their story frames your own.
When stories are told well in an organization, they become a secret code or shorthand to talk about a principle that needs to be reinforced over and over.
All civilizations pass on their wisdom through telling stories, and today, when the average attention span is shorter and shorter, stories give us a way to grab the listener’s attention quickly and begin to form a lasting bond.
There are workshops on story development, including ones Mitch leads. (http://www.ideachampions.com/wisdom_at_work.shtml)
TED Talk videos contain great storytellers. There are many writers who deconstruct how these talks are structured. There’s a wealth of how to information online. See https://hbr.org/2014/07/how-to-tell-a-great-story, https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story.
If you want to learn a great story, start with the 18th camel. http://alltimeshortstories.com/the-eighteenth-camel/