I recently travelled to Southern Europe, to assist a friend who has moved country for a new life and new business. At the airport I managed to fill my arms with the usual stack of daily news and happily found a copy of the Wall Street Journal. The ‘Personal Journal’ in today’s issue really raced my mind on an article around happiness, life, love. I have been writing for the last few years on the subject and then had a 38,000 feet epiphany: “it may not be how happy we are in our lives or in love, but it maybe the stories we tell”?
A Hopi American Indian proverb says: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” Well, just maybe these words of wisdom are totally correct.
It is true that in our information-saturated age, business leaders “will not be heard unless they’re telling stories,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues and president and founder of Public Words, a communications consulting firm. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually do not stick in our minds at all,” he says. But stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that happen. That means leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others. And fortunately, everyone has the ability to become a better storyteller. “We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story,” says Jonah Sachs, CEO of Free Range Studios and author of Winning the Story Wars. “It certainly can be taught and learned.”
In William Shakespeare’s time, the word “conversation” meant two things—verbal discourse, and sex.
That’s how intimate the most well-known poet and playwright in the English language viewed the act of talking with another person.
Since the dawn of language, people have shared stories with others to entertain, persuade, make sense of what happened to them and bond. Research shows that the way people construct their individual stories has a large impact on their physical and mental health. People who frame their personal narratives in a positive way have more life satisfaction.
They also may be more attractive. New research, published this month in the journal Personal Relationships, shows that women find men who are good storytellers more appealing. The article consists of three studies in which male and female participants were shown a picture of someone of the opposite sex and given an indication of whether that person was a proficient storyteller. In the first study, 71 men and 84 women were told that the person whose picture they were looking at was either a “good,” “moderate” or “poor” storyteller. In the second study, 32 men and 50 women were given a short story supposedly written by the person in the picture; half the stories were concise and compelling, and half rambled and used dull language. In the third study, 60 men and 81 women were told whether the person in the picture was a good storyteller and were asked to rate their social status and ability to be a good leader in addition to their attractiveness.
The results were the same across all three studies: Women rated men who were good storytellers as more attractive and desirable as potential long-term partners. Psychologists believe this is because the man is showing that he knows how to connect, to share emotions and, possibly, to be vulnerable. He also is indicating that he is interesting and articulate and can gain resources and provide support.
Psychologists say it’s important to keep telling each other stories. They help you remember why you were attracted to each other in the first place. In tough times, they help you make sense of what has happened. Many marriage therapists have couples in crisis each explain their side of events and then weave their stories into one cohesive narrative. “It’s a way to build and maintain a bond over shared history,” says Anna Osborn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, Calif.
How can you use storytelling to continue to bond in your relationships?
Principles to Remember
– Consider your audience – choose a framework and details that will best resonate with your listeners.
– Identify the moral or message your want to impart.
– Find inspiration in your life experiences.
– Assume you don’t have storytelling chops – we all have it in us to tell memorable stories.
– Give yourself the starring role.
– Overwhelm your story with unnecessary details.
Embed conflict to motivate and inspire
Josh Linkner was worried his employees were becoming complacent. Then the CEO of ePrize, a Detroit-based interactive promotions company, Linkner had seen his company become the dominant leader in the online promotions industry almost overnight. In the mid 2000s, “we had double and triple growth every year,” he says. “I became worried that we would start clinging to our previous success instead of forging new success, and that our creativity would decline.” “Greatness is often achieved in the face of adversity,” he says, “but we didn’t have a competitor to gun against.”
So he made up a fake nemesis. At an all-company meeting, he stood up and announced that there was a brash new competitor named Slither. “I told everyone they were bigger than us, faster than us, and more profitable,” he says. “Their investors had deeper pockets. Their footprint was better, and they were innovating at a pace I’d never seen.”
The story was greeted with chuckles around the room (it was obvious the company was a ruse), but the idea soon became embedded within ePrize’s culture. Executives kept reinforcing the Slither story with fake press releases about their competitor’s impressive quarterly earnings or infusions of capital, and soon the urge to best the imaginary rival began to drive improved performance.
“It inspired creativity,” Linkner says. “In brainstorming sessions, we used Slither as the foil. Instead of saying, ‘OK, guys, we have to reduce our production time. How are we going to do that?’ I would say, ‘The folks over at Slither just shaved two days out of their cycle time. How do you think they did it?’ The white boards filled with ideas.”
Anchor the story in your personal experiences
Vince Molinaro, managing director of the leadership practice at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions, Canada’s biggest HR advisory, tells clients he knows exactly when his career direction snapped into focus. It was at his first job out of college, with an organization that helped needy individuals get back on their feet. Vince loved the mission but found the atmosphere uninspiring. “Everyone just went through the motions,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this it? Is this what working in the real world is like?’”
A senior manager named Zinta sensed that Vince wanted to have a bigger impact, and asked him to join several likeminded colleagues on a committee to make their workplace a more positive environment. They began to make subtle changes, and coworkers’ attitudes started to improve. “I saw firsthand how a single manager can change the culture of a place,” he says.
Then Zinta was diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. In her absence, the office culture began to revert back. On a visit to see Zinta in the hospital, Vince told her about the disappointing turn of events. She surprised him with a confession: Since she had never smoked and had no history of cancer in her family, she was convinced that her disease was a direct function of putting up with a toxic work environment for so long.
Shortly after, Zinta sent Vince a letter telling him he would be faced with an important choice throughout his life. He could allow the negative attitudes of others to influence his behavior, or pursue professional goals because of the sense of personal accomplishment they offered. “In her time of need she reached out to me,” he says. “She was a mentor to me even though she didn’t need to be.”
Two weeks later, Zinta passed away. But the letter changed Vince’s life, inspiring him to leave his job and start his own consulting business devoted to helping people be better leaders. “I’ve seen the kind of climate and culture that a great leader can create,” he says. “For the last 25 years, I’ve tried to emulate that.” He still has Zinta’s letter.
When Vince first began sharing this story with his leadership clients, he was taken aback by their reaction. “There was a connection they had to me that was really surprising, he says. “It’s like they got me in ways that I wasn’t able to directly communicate.”
“It also gets them thinking about their own story and the leaders that have influenced them. In my case, it was a great leader. Sometimes it’s the really bad ones you learn a lot from.” Whatever the case, he says, the power comes from sharing your story with the people you lead so they better understand what motivates you.
A final thought: stories do grab us. They take us in, transport us, and allow us to live vicariously and visually through another’s experience. As I’ve said often in my work around presence, shared stories accelerate interpersonal connection. Learning to tell stories to capture, direct and sustain the attention of others is a key leadership skill. Storytelling also greatly helps anyone speaking or presenting in front of an audience.
As Steven Spielberg once said:
‘The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.’