Using Stories to Inspire
Stories can carry powerful messages.
How many times have you been fascinated by a good story?
Think about this for a minute, because it may be more often than you think. How many times have you stayed up late reading
a novel that you "couldn't" put down, or watching a movie that you couldn't turn off? How many times have you pushed yourself harder after hearing the story of someone else's success, or changed your opinion after reading a convincing article in a magazine or newspaper?
There's no doubt that stories can change the way we think, act, and feel. Leaders, especially, can use the power of a good story to influence and motivate their teams to new heights. Stories can inspire everything from understanding to action. They can create legends that an entire workplace culture can build upon, and they have the power to break down barriers and turn a bad situation into a good one. Stories can capture our imaginations and make things real in a way that cold, hard facts can't.
Make no mistake – stories can be very, very powerful leadership tools. Great leaders know this, and many top CEOs today use stories to illustrate points and sell their ideas.
So, do you want to be a persuasive motivator? If so, learn how to tell a good story. But how? When should you tell a story, and how do you know what kind of story to tell to get the results you want? (This article summarizes our Expert Interview with Annette Simmons, author of "Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.")
Types of Stories
Learn what kind of story to tell for different situations. There are six main types of story that you can use in the workplace:
- "Who I Am" Stories – When you start leading a team, members of your new team sometimes make automatic judgments about who you are. They may see you as controlling, mean, or "out to get them" without really knowing you. If you tell a "Who I Am" story when you first become a team leader, you can give a powerful insight into what really motivates you. This can break down walls and help your team realize that you're a person just like them.
- Your goal with a "Who I Am" story should be to reveal some type of flaw about yourself or mistake that you've made. Why? Because by revealing a flaw, you show your team that you trust them with this information. Revealing flaws can also make you more approachable, because it demonstrates that you're only human. (Just make sure it's a small flaw!)
- For example, the author often finds that when clients first meet her, they assume that her primary goal is to sell them copies of her book or more consulting time. She gets past this by explaining that her dad was a social worker who wanted her to help others (while also being her own boss) and so felt she should go to law school. She was so determined not to do this, that she moved to Australia. This story has the double benefit of emphasizing that she didn't grow up in privileged circumstances, and so actually has a background similar to that of many of her clients, and also that she might sometimes make slightly foolish decisions. After all, emigrating to another continent is a rather extreme way of getting out of going to law school!
- "Why I'm Here" Stories – These are very similar to "Who I Am" stories. The goal is to replace suspicion with trust, and help your team realize that you don't have any hidden agendas. Show that you're a good person, and that you want to work together with them to achieve a common goal.
- For example, a new member of the school board was appointed to the sub-committee responsible for the head teacher's performance management. In their first meeting, which looked at whether the head had met her stated objectives in the past year, the new member challenged the Head on several aspects of the proof presented. After the meeting, the new board member approached the Head, and explained "I'm sure you realize that my challenges are not personal. And I think you're doing great work. However, my duty as a board member is to ensure that the city's education budget is being spent wisely, and so it's my job to ensure that bonuses are only paid when there's a real justification for doing so." The Head reassured her that she understood this perfectly, and was, in fact, grateful for the rigor she had brought to the process.
- Teaching Stories – It can be very hard to teach without demonstrating, and that's the whole purpose of Teaching Stories.
- There's no better example of this than Aesop's fables. Remember "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? This story alone has taught millions of children not to yell for help unless there's a real need for it. Although it's simple, like most fables, it's done an effective job for centuries.
- Use Teaching Stories to make a lesson clear and to help people remember why they're doing something in the first place.
- The author tells a more recent example to emphasize the value of teaching stories. She was working with a nationwide chain of care homes for the elderly. Many of the staff in these homes are young and, with the best intentions, often use tones of voice that are more suitable for addressing young children than elderly people. The challenge was to get these young staff to remember to use respectful tones of voice. She achieved this by telling the story of her own grandmother, who suffered a stroke and was unable to speak. After some months, she gave up eating because she had decided she would rather die than live without dignity, because of the patronizing way in which her carers spoke to her.
- Vision Stories – Tell these to inspire hope, especially when your team needs occasional reminders of why they're doing what they should be doing.
- Vision Stories are meant to stimulate action and raise morale. Find a story that reminds everyone what the ultimate goal is, and why it's important that everyone reaches that goal. This type of story should be told from your heart, with emotion.
- The author shares her own vision story, which is one of human beings saving the planet from ecological disaster by working together. She drew on the importance of embedding this collaborative approach in society when she was at the airport recently, and her plane was delayed for the third time. While it would have been tempting to take out her frustration on the airline staff, remembering the importance of helping others to work collaboratively helped her calm her emotions.
- "Values in Action" Stories – When you see the word "integrity," what do you think of? Honesty? Doing the right thing for the right reason?
- Every value can mean something different from person to person. If you want to pass on values to your team, start by defining what those values mean to you. So, if you want your team to demonstrate a high level of customer service, then tell a story that reveals exactly what customer service means to you.
- For example, a chain of opticians ran an advertising campaign that offered to replace glasses with a new style if customers didn't like the frames when they got them home. Now this led to the transaction costing the optician money in most cases. However, the manager at one store regularly told his staff about a customer who had taken advantage – most apologetically – of the offer, but then not only remained loyal to that optical chain for years, but also recommended the chain to her family and friends. As a result, the small loss on one transaction bought the chain many profitable purchases in the future.
- "I Know What You're Thinking" Stories – The world of business involves frequent bargaining. The advantage of telling this type of story is that you can recognize another person's objections, and then show why those objections aren't applicable in this situation. You can show respect for the other point of view while convincing the person that you're right.
- For example, a saleswoman in children's shoe store convinces a mom to buy a pair of premium-priced shoes by explaining that if her child doesn't find his new shoes comfortable after a week, she can bring them back for an exchange or refund. This is the case even though the shoes would be worn and couldn't be resold. The saleswoman backs this up by telling of one customer who did that just last week, although she was the only customer whose child hadn't loved the shoes.
Keep these suggestions in mind when telling your stories:
- Be authentic – The best storytellers talk from their hearts, so don't try to fake an emotion that you don't feel. Your listeners will probably see through this, and your story will crash and burn.
- Pay attention to your audience – Stories that are too long are generally boring. Tell the story well, but don't
go on forever.
- Practice – Try to practice before you tell the story. Even if you tell it to yourself just once in front of a mirror or video camera, this can help you when you're in front of your real audience.
- Create an experience – Remember that when you tell a story, you're creating an experience for your listeners. Don't just use sound (words), but the other senses as well. Show your listeners the picture you're painting, don't just tell them.
- For example, it's easy to tell people that it's snowing outside. But if you want your listeners to really experience the snow, then describe how cold it is and the way the wind blows snow into your eyes. Tell them how you dream of a hot cup of cocoa after you're done shoveling snow in your driveway, and how your toes freeze because your boots aren't warm enough. Try to engage the five senses in every story: taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell. They'll make your story come alive.
Stories can be powerful leadership tools – if they're told well.
Know which kind of story to tell, and spend time brainstorming some good ideas for each type of situation. Remember, you're creating an experience for your listeners, so focus on using at least two or three senses when you tell your story. Create interest, and draw your listeners in. Show them what you're saying, don't just tell them.
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