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Want to Reach People? Tell a Story

In his book “Trust Me, I’m Human,” writer Mick Mooney focuses on the value and the power of storytelling. He’s not talking about sitting around the campfire or swapping tales at family reunions, however. He’s demonstrating how to leverage the art of storytelling to motivate and inspire coworkers and customers in a way that dry numbers and statistics alone just cannot accomplish.

The key to success, Mooney argues, is to think of storytelling as a communication tool; one that inspires a greater sense of connection between a group of people, and which creates an opportunity to foster a culture of shared purpose. “Transactional leaders give orders; transformative leaders build connections because they know that without first establishing a connection, there can be no progress,” he notes.

Microphone for storytelling

Transactional leaders give orders; transformative leaders build connections because they know that without first establishing a connection, there can be no progress.

– Mick Mooney

Why do stories work so well?

The left side of our brains is where we process logic, structures, timelines, formulas, etc. It’s dispassionate and linear – wanting “just the facts.” The right side of our brains is where we perceive visuals and feel emotion and empathy. When you present just the facts, only the left brain is engaged – think of the waw-waw-waw that Charlie Brown hears from his teacher. There is no personal connection. Only information. When you utilize story to get your ideas across, however, something magical happens. The right brain is engaged in the experience, which enables an emotional connection between the audience and the content that increases understanding and retention, makes principles more memorable, and can bring folks around to your way of thinking. In fact, research shows that there’s physiology behind this emotional response. An engaging story actually causes the brain to release a neurochemical called oxytocin, which “motivates cooperation with others [by] enhancing a sense of empathy.” Simply put, a great story can make customers and employees want to work with you to achieve a desired outcome.

But I’m Not a Storyteller!

Of course, you are. Think about it. Let’s say you go on vacation and spend a night in one of those ice hotels. Upon your return, you tell your friends about it – what the room looked like, how the staff treated you, whether or not it was comfortable, everything that happened – you tell the story of your experience. Well, storytelling in business is no different. You might tell the story of a customer who was experiencing a particular challenge and how your team came together to help them. The story would be a demonstration of the extent of your organization’s commitment to ensure that its customers have what they need to be successful. As they say, “Show me. Don’t tell me.” Storytelling accomplishes this.

So, what makes for a good story?

The answer depends on the affect you hope to have on your audience. Stories can come from personal experience, such as a time you shined or a time you blew it. They can come from books, movies, or current events; nature, parables, another’s experience or even dreams. Whatever you can think of that will illustrate the point you’re trying to make will do the job. There are six principles, however, that should be included in every story.

Man telling story to customers

1. Sensory Detail.

  • The Rule of 3’s. There is an accepted writing principle that things grouped in three’s are more memorable or satisfying than other groupings. In telling your story, use descriptors and other elements in sets of three.
  • Be specific about names, dates, colors, the weather – whatever will help set the stage and bring your audience along with you as you tell your story.
  • Give background. Be sure to include who, what, when and where. What precipitated the experience? How did the situation come to be? Who did what to contribute to the circumstances?
  • Add snap, crackle and pop! Words and phrases that command attention around specific points (as well as sounds and motions if you’re telling the story orally) really help your audience to connect because they’re able to relive the event with you. When you say, “The spring in the couch went twang!” everyone gets it. 

2. Development of Information. Start with the villain (or challenge) and build the tension over a timeline to the climax of the story. End with the resolution of the challenge – the lesson in the story. This allows you to get your audience’s attention, make sure they understand, helps them to remember, and identifies the action that should be taken. And remember, tension is vitally important because it keeps the attention of the audience. If they get bored, you lose. 

3. Intention. Begin with the end in mind. Without a clear vision of how you want your audience to think and feel by the end of your story, it is unlikely that you’ll get them there. 

4. Connect. Remember that the goal is not to control your audience, but rather to connect with them – bring them along with you. When you relive a situation through telling the story, your audience relives it with you, so when your story is compelling, they will feel the way you do and be motivated to take the desired action. 

5. Identify Who Benefits. Be sure your story illustrates how your character benefitted from the events. This implies that others could benefit in a similar way.

6. Oral and Non-Verbal Communication. When speaking in front of a live audience, take full advantage your voice, phrasing, gestures and movement to enhance your audience’s experience.

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