John was struggling with how to handle a difficult situation with a key vendor for the company. He went to his supervisor, Stephanie, and asked her advice on what he should do. Rather than telling him what to do, or even giving her direct input, Stephanie replied, “John, let me tell you a story…” She went on to tell a story about an experience she had early in her career and the consequences of her decision over the years.
When she was done, she paused and waited. After a few seconds of silence, John smiled and said: “Got it. Thanks.” He stood up and left the room, even though Stephanie hadn’t directly answered his question.
Most business leaders focus on data and factual information. Sales, expense reports, customer satisfaction ratings, and financial statements. As most leaders learn, accurate data is important for making good decisions. But throughout history and across cultures, communicating facts has not been the most utilized method for developing leadership qualities.
Stories have been used more than any other form of verbal expression to communicate foundational life lessons. If you read the Greek philosophers, the wisdom literature from Asia, and the literature across the centuries designed to teach guiding principles for life—the “authors” used stories grounded in daily life rather than just stating the principle (or making lists of them, as most business books and articles do today). Even Christ communicated spiritual truths repeatedly through stories and metaphors instead of just giving the principles directly.
As a psychologist who has specialized for over 25 years in exploring how people learn best, I can confidently tell you there are numerous excellent reasons why effective leaders utilize stories in their communication with their team members.
But before I give you the reasons directly, let me quickly show you the power of stories for communicating life principles effectively and the incredible staying power they have in our lives.
1. Do you remember the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could? What was the phrase that he repeated to himself over and over to help him achieve his goal? What is the main point of this story? How many years ago did you hear this story?
2. What about Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare? Briefly, in your mind, outline the gist of the story. What is the main principle this story communicates?
3. How about the Back to the Future series of movies where Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown are constantly trying to correct changes that occurred in the “space-time continuum?” What key life principle are these stories communicating (indirectly, but powerfully) to the viewer?
Why Stories Are So Powerful
Stories involve different parts of our brain, which makes learning (and remembering) more effective. Stories obviously involve words, but stories also bring up visual images and pictures in our mind. Also, the most effective stories involve emotionally charged situations: challenges, risks and adventure. These situations then evoke emotional responses that we either feel personally through identification, or remember similar feelings of fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, and determination. A little bit of humor, or irony, adds another element to the mix that triggers another part of our brain.
Stories are non-threatening, which keep people from not putting up their defenses. Stories are usually framed in the context of someone else (either the storyteller themself, or the fictional characters of the story). Since the story is not about me and usually communicated in an informal style for the purpose of entertainment, then most listeners start out with an “open” mindset.
We often identify with one or more of the characters, and we can easily relate their experiences and reactions to our daily lives. If a reader (or listener) has no personal connection with any of the characters in the story, then the person will probably not be very interested in the story, or it will have little instructional value to them, since it will have little personal relevance for them. (Think about a story from another culture or time period where you really don’t understand what is going on.)
We see other characters that represent people in our lives (which gives us insight into them and why we react to them the way we do.) Some stories have characters with whom we don’t personally relate, but they remind us of others in our lives. The characters’ reactions often then provide us insights into those in our daily lives—why they do what they do—or showing us the strengths associated with character qualities that we may find irritating.
We are able to learn from others’ experiences (in contrast to having to go through the full experience ourselves) and can observe different options for handling challenging situations and people. One of the core benefits of stories is that they allow us to learn from others vicariously, rather than learning how to handle difficult situations by having to experience them all ourselves. Additionally, we are able to hear how someone else may handle a situation than we would ourselves and see how their choices “play out,” without having to personally experience the consequences.
Some difficult messages can be communicated indirectly through stories, and are less offensive than when stated directly. By their nature, stories communicate messages indirectly, which allows some “hard truths” or even potentially offensive messages to be sent to the audience that wouldn’t be acceptable if the same message were stated directly. Stereotypes of generations or various personality types are typical examples. Mark Twain, and even Jesus were quite effective using stories in this manner.
Stories are easier to remember and communicate to others than facts and principles. Because of their use of imagery, the flow of the storyline, identification with the characters, and the involvement of our emotions, we are able to remember the gist of a story more easily than remembering pure factual information. Additionally, we are able to quickly tell the main points of a story and the lesson it teaches in a way that is easily understood by others.
Tips for Telling Stories
Some people are natural storytellers—they just “do it” People listen to them, laugh, and enjoy hearing their stories. For the rest of us, we need to work at it a bit. Otherwise, our stories seem to fall flat, with little impact on our listeners, and sometimes there is just an awkward silence when we finish. So here are some tips for learning to tell effective stories.
Where to Get Your Stories
There are several sources for stories but the best one is your life. You’ve gone through some situations that were challenging, hair-raising, and funny. You were there, so it is easy for you to remember. Some personal experiences and the stories that flow from that have to do with direct life experience. You were there, felt the feelings, know what the dangers were and how you felt when you got through the situation. Other experiences are more indirect. You were there, but it was someone else going through the situation, and you watched what happened (Think about your parents while you were growing up, situations with your children, trips with friends, etc.).
A second treasure trove of stories are those told by others. This can include stories told by friends and family, stories told by authors in books, or the situations created and demonstrated in movies and TV shows (by the way, movies are the modern cultural equivalent of orally told stories in past cultures). YouTube videos also provide good visual short stories. Note that trying to retell a story you’ve heard told by a friend can be difficult to tell effectively to others (especially if you only heard it once).
When telling a story, start by giving the context and setting (the “setup”) for what happens in the story. This is critical. Some people start into a story without giving the listeners any clues about the background of the story or what the overall context is. Next, share the main character’s perspective on what is going on—how did they see the situation? What were they feeling? This heightens the interest and energy level. Then, make sure you get the sequence right. Not much “kills” a story more quickly than the storyteller having to go back and correct themselves (“No, that’s not right.”) about what happened and when. Clearly describing the challenge or dilemma (along with the person’s feeling response) is the next critical step.
Make sure your listeners know what the problem is that the character is facing, and their emotional response to the situation. Tell what decision was made or the action chosen, and then describe the result and its on impact you and the others in the situation. Sometimes listeners miss an important part of the story or the context and need to be told exactly what happened and why it was important. If needed, tell the lesson you learned. In many stories, this is obvious, but sometimes the lesson you learned is important to delineate.
Watch and observe effective leaders and influencers. They often are excellent at communicating through stories. Think about life experiences that have impacted you, and start to tell stories to teach important lessons to those you are leading.
By: Dr. Paul White
Dr. Paul White is a psychologist, speaker, and consultant who makes work relationships work. Co-author of the 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (with Dr. Gary Chapman), Dr. White provides practical advice in improving workplace relationships and successfully transferring family businesses across generations.Read More Articles by Dr. Paul White