This post about the persuasive power of storytelling and how to apply it in the workplace originally appeared at Fast Company, and has been reproduced with the author’s permission.
Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a salesman who traveled the countryside, peddling his wares. Everyone loved his product except the evil king, who wanted to do away with it. One day the king said, ‘This product is ruining my kingdom and I want to destroy it. If anyone has a reason for why this product should live, let him come hither and speak now.’
Out of the crowd came a voice. ‘I think this product is great and I can prove it,’ said the brave salesman. ‘Then come to my palace tomorrow morning and prove to me why this is so,’ said the king. And so the salesman went home and prepared PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide filled with endless statistics and dizzying market projection graphs.
On the morrow, the salesman turned up at the palace. ‘Show me why I should spare your miserable product,’ said the king. The salesmen opened his trusty laptop and started to plow through his heaping deck of slides. Starting with a company background, the salesman went on to show market trend graphs, customer case studies, and then analyst quotes. The king began to squirm on his throne. When a return on investment spreadsheet appeared on slide 47, the king finally had enough. ‘Off with your head,’ said the king. ‘Originally, I only wanted to kill your product, but this presentation is criminal.’
Funny story, but you get the point. The point is a message was delivered using a story, not a statistic or an analyst quote.
Much has been written lately about the efficacy of storytelling in the workplace. Most of it is based on a general feeling that stories ‘work.’
‘Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity,’ says screenwriter Robert McKee in a Harvard Business Review article entitled Storytelling That Works. ‘Trying to convince people with logic is tough for two reasons. One is they are arguing with you in their heads while you are making your argument. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.’
But there’s more proof of storytelling’s effectiveness than just anecdotal evidence. For example, studies carried out by Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock at Ohio State University have empirically shown that people’s beliefs can be swayed more effectively through storytelling than through logical arguments. The researchers posit that persuasion is most effective when people are ‘transported’ to another place using a story.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down to discuss this topic with Susan Fisher, a strategic communication expert and principal at First Class. ‘People are always telling stories; why don’t they do it at work?’ asks Fisher. ‘It’s because they have been taught that at work you use logic and slides and statistics; this seems more professional. Telling stories seems too emotional and possibly manipulative. So people stick to facts and numbers. But the truth is that real emotions always work better, because that is the way to reach hearts and minds, and also people get to see the real you. It’s authentic.’
While we are all intuitively storytellers, I asked Fisher to share some of her insights about where professionals most often need to focus when telling stories in the workplace. Here are Fisher’s top 10 tips for becoming a more effective storyteller at work:
- Plan your story starting with the takeaway message. Think about what’s important to the audience. The ending is the most important point of the story. This is the message we want to deliver, and the one that will linger with the audience.
- Keep your stories short for the workplace. Three to five minutes long is about what people can digest in today’s ADD world.
- Good stories are about challenge or conflict. Without these elements, stories aren’t very interesting. The compelling part of a story is how people deal with conflict – so start with the people and the conflict.
- Think about your story like a movie. Imagine you are screenwriter with a goal to get your message across. The story has to have a beginning, middle, and end.
- Start with a person and his challenge, and intensify human interest by adding descriptions of time, place, and people with their emotions.
- Be creative. Create a storyboard; draw it out, while listening to music or reading something for inspiration. A good story always has ups and downs, so ‘arc’ the story. Pull people along, and introduce tension, just like in a fairy tale. (‘From out of nowhere, the wolf jumps onto the path…’).
- Intensify the story with vivid language and intonation. Tap into people’s emotions with language. Use metaphors, idioms, and parables that have emotional associations. (Note: For more on this, see Leo Widrich’s article entitled, Which Words Matter Most When You Talk and studies on intonation performed by Ingrid Johnsrude at Cambridge University).
- When using a story in a PowerPoint presentation, use appropriate graphics/pictures to convey your message. Stay away from text and complicated graphics. A single picture interlaced with emotional language will go a long way to convey your message.
- Most of us have not told stories in front of an audience since English class in high school. So you will need to practice. Tell your story in front of a friendly audience and get feedback. Gauge your pace, and take note of the story’s length and your use of language. It will be a bit rusty at first, but underneath it all, we are all born storytellers.
- The most important point is to make the switch within; because once you internalize that today’s ‘left-brain’ communication style doesn’t work very well and you realize that stories are how people really communicate, you will find it a lot easier to proceed…because it’s authentic. And that is what really persuades.
Fisher also recommends signing up for a storytelling workshop. There are even workshops you can do online.
Finally, in the words of Ira Glass, ‘Great stories happen to those who tell them.’ So tell them…and live happily ever after.
David Lavenda is a technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. He is particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In his ‘spare’ time, he is pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information.
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