Almost every time I facilitate a small group leadership discussion, I ask the team to share some of their story. Predictably, half the group jumps at the opportunity to transparently relay “who” they are and the “story” that informs their lives. It is one of the most powerful moments of any gathering because our story is the truth of where we’ve been and often the spark of our motivations. Our personal narrative is the essence of who we are and the impetus for how we engage with others.
We all have a story. It explains our past and inspires our future; it is, was, and will always be essential to who we become. As Harvard’s Dr. Howard Gardner says, “stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” Research suggests we almost exclusively operate within a ‘story mindset.’ Leaders who are not afraid to enter someone else’s story understand the power of empathy. But leaders who are not afraid to share their own story understand the power of vulnerability. The future belongs to the storytellers.
One of the best predictors of professional success isn’t likeability, attention to detail, or even industry expertise, but how one authentically tells a story. Most people in sales and marketing work with facts, details, and stats. In doing so, they overwhelm their customers with the weight of information, and it is forgotten as quickly as it is received. Researchers Dan & Chip Heath found after a presentation 63% of attendees remembered stories, while only 5% remembered statistics.
Stories move us – but why?
“Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others,” says Peter Forbes, photographer and author. When emotions get too complicated, it is time to rely on a story to simplify the moment. Jimmy Neil Smith, Director of the International Storytelling Center, points out that “We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” People with a story can’t be ignored.
The pioneering work of neuro-economics leader Paul Zak has uncovered that storytelling triggers the release of Oxytocin, which encourages empathy in the receiver of the story. This release is what researchers refer to as the “trust hormone,” a chemical that encourages empathy.
We prefer pictures and relate to stories, not facts. Ironically, facts are oftentimes debatable, but stories allow us to connect with reality. We process visuals 60,000x faster than text. A good story speaks to our intellect, our emotions, and basic psychology.
Business is about relationships. It is about storytelling and connecting my story to yours. So how do we all utilize stories in our professional life? Two ideas to consider:
Share pain. Do you have the courage to open a discussion sharing how you and your team have failed? This includes the missteps, the confusion, and the frustrations you have encountered. This is much more believable, authentic, and human. If you have finally uncovered an idea worth discussing with your customer, it was more than likely birthed out of quite a lot of pain. Why not share the whole story, not just the boring sanitized version? Now that is a story worth listening to and remembering.
What if? What if all of us are missing something that is right before us? What if, with one decision, we could double our sales, improve customer loyalty, and reduce complexity within our lives? What if we could transform a current partnership with one decision?
Effective storytelling often begins with a question. The right question opens the door for co-creation with your customers and leads you into the future. Stories are journeys, and they often begin by questioning something. A thoughtful, disruptive “what if?” question sets the stage for a compelling story. It opens the audience to discover.
The best organizations are not afraid of telling stories. As J.R.R. Tolkien shared in a letter to his son, “A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving.”
Quit dumping lots of data and tell your untold story. Transport them and take them on a journey.
Buyers want to know your brand story, add your brand story to your RangeMe profile.
Editor’s note: This column is an excerpt from Dan Mack’s second book, Look Closer: Ideas on Reexamining and Eliminating Personal, Relational, and Organizational Blind Spots is an EQ blueprint to help leaders rethink how they personally and professionally engage the world. You can find the book here.