The Management Toolkit: Storytelling
For as long as there have been people, there have been stories, and while we might not all be storytellers, we are all hardwired story consumers.
Stories play a fundamental role in understanding the structure of our world and have become an important vehicle for sharing our knowledge.
Regardless of profession, culture or generation, storytelling always has and will be one of the most important elements of effective communication and influence. Here is why and how you can use storytelling as a tool for good leadership and collegiality.
Brian, a former associate of mine, is the manager of a junior marketing team. Over the course of few weeks, he noticed a conflict growing between three of his team members. “They never agree on anything anymore,” he told me, “instead of working together, they all treat our meetings as a competition, and they all want to win by having the final word.” His attempts at mediating the conversations were fruitless, until he one day realized what his team members needed – a change of perspective. To help them understand the flaws in their team cohesion, Brian held a meeting and managed to bring up a story of his old football captain.
“I used to play ball for a team that was pretty good, but never great. You see, the Captain wanted to win. He was self-motivated and wanted nothing more than to bring home each win himself. Because the captain was setting such an example, the rest of the team ended up chasing those same goals of winning by their own hand. Despite all of us playing our best, our team’s performance kept dropping. We lost, and we lost, and we lost. I can still feel that frustration, of having a perfect opening, only to be ignored because the other guy wanted the goal themselves.”
When Brian saw his team members nodding their heads, connecting with what he was saying, he continued, “Only when the captain was injured and had to watch from the bench, did things begin to change. The team was performing better, and he realized he could share credit for everyone else’s goals, and so he decided to have a go at being the best at giving assists. From that day on, he started passing the ball, and he measured his wins in others’ goals. And we began scoring. We started winning! It wasn’t long until we all followed suit, focusing on assists rather than goals, and suddenly we were once again a team – and we were good.”
Silence engulfed the room as his team digested his story. “I digress– How about this campaign, do we have an idea we can build on?”. Brian told me they finally moved forward in the weeks following the meeting, and now he feels as if they are indeed a team again.
Brian created a relatable narrative for his team members. He used storytelling as a tool to show his team how dysfunctional their behaviour was, without directly criticizing them. This is possible because of how powerful stories are compared with other forms of communication. Business psychologist and storytelling expert, Annette Simmons describes storytelling as a unique, charismatic tool in that it has a pull effect rather than a push effect. Instead of convincing others, a good story inspires them, guiding them to reach the same conclusion as you while leaving them to decide whether to act on it. Successful storytelling consolidates your influence, prompting people to do what you want them to of their own volition. In Brian’s case, this means that a story well told will make his team want to work collaboratively because they are inspired to, rather than because they are told they have to.
Storytelling is distinctive in its affect on the listener. According to Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, stories are the only way to activate the parts of the brain that turn stories into their idea or experience. A story doesn’t have to be long nor complicated. It’s important to infuse your narrative with emotive elements that in turn trigger emotional responses, because even though a story comes from outside, the meaning emerges from within the listener. Thus, by leveraging the emotionally charged quarrels in the team and their individual desires for achievement, Brian was able to present an emotionally compelling story that had a more profound and lasting effect.
Everyone can tell a good story; you might not even realise it. Every day we have conversations about recent events, we daydream about our weekends, and we romanticize our vacations. All of these conversations, however informal, contain stories. To improve your story telling skills with a purpose in mind, you need to know yours, and have an understanding of how to trigger the necessary emotions within the listener. With your plan in mind, you can experiment with different ways of telling your stories until you see the desired results. As in all other things; practice makes progress.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our introduction to the world of storytelling, and we wish you best of luck in improving your abilities.
Stay tuned for further tools of the trade.