Pack a punch with stories

by | Mar 21, 2012 | Blog | 2 comments

Please keep telling stories in your organization, especially when you want to influence people to change and take action. If you’re not, please start.

Stories are a compact way to communicate vividly, practically and persuasively. You can quickly capture people’s attention, illustrate abstract principles in action and appeal to emotions.

Neuroscience research continues to reinforce the power of stories. Story lines trigger the release of chemicals in our brain as if we were in the shoes of the story’s characters and experiencing their same emotions, based on research conducted by Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and the Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara, and others.

In storytelling, the worlds of fact and fiction can clash though.

Just take the recent ruckus about Mike Daisey and his one-man theatrical show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  Besides performing it at various theaters, Daisey was a guest on the popular radio program This American Life this past January.

The show’s host Ira Glass gave an eloquent apology for misleading listeners due to the story’s many fabrications. Glass then promised to run a special show outlining the controversy.

Two professional worlds collided—theater and journalism—in this situation. Theater—especially performance art, which is Daisey’s genre—believes a good story trumps facts. It’s as if the facts serve as a launching pad to soar into the atmosphere to say whatever you want.

By contrast, journalism is grounded in facts that editors and fact checkers can confirm. The story needs to be accurate first, illustrative second.

Corporate storytelling is more like journalistic stories than performance art. At least that’s my perspective (and bias?) based on my experiences and my Northwestern University education. (Interestingly, Northwestern is known for both its journalism and theater programs.)

With corporate storytelling, you want stories to be factual so they demonstrate the point you want to make. The facts make the story more believable and therefore more credible.

Three helpful hints for credible stories are:

1. Use your personal experiences as the foundation for your stories. If you were in the middle of the action, the story is more compelling.

For example, when I talk about the Gramercy Park steam pipe explosion in New York City, I start the story when I learned that my apartment building was ground zero of the blast. The initial explosion and four-hour, 18-story steam shower that killed three people are not part of my story since I wasn’t home when it happened.

2. Stick with one set of experiences per story. Avoid amalgamations.

The steam pipe explosion, in which my neighbors and I were locked out of our apartments for almost six months while asbestos abatement experts cleaned the building, provides a number of potential plots. I stick with one story line. Nor do I fuse my neighbors’ stories into mine.

3. Then craft your story to illustrate a point that you want to make that will resonate with your audience, or the individuals with whom you’re working. Strive to keep it simple and emphasize one point.

When I talk with communication professionals, I caution about trotting out the usual spokespeople just because they’re trained to talk—especially if they lack credibility on the issue and skimp on preparation.

For example, at the first meeting with residents after the explosion, Con Ed’s PR person said she knew we residents were concerned about the dangers of airborne asbestos exposure. So she brought a company doctor to talk to us.

The doctor then got up and said he was a doctor of waste management, rather than a medical doctor as the PR person had led us to believe.

After we booed him off the stage, the PR person’s boss deviated from the company script. To his credit, he recognized that he had to repair relations with the audience. He reassured us that the company would spend whatever was needed to help us recover—which made this a multi-million dollar meeting for Con Ed.

When I speak with executives, I emphasize the importance of getting out in front of the issue rather than holding back several days.

More than 20 years after this incident, I can still mine rich stories about how Con Ed’s leaders kept blowing opportunities to deal with this group of customers in a respectful manner.

But are the stories’ facts always a true account of what transpired?

A group of NeuroLeadership coaches recently discussed the phenomenon of storytelling, especially in light of how our memories change with new experiences.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say our stories’ facts are our interpretation of the facts as we experienced them. Or to say it another way, we’re telling stories within the story of our lives, such as plays within plays.

Nonetheless, as long as we’re not fabricating the truth, we can tap our imperfect memories to share an experience that effectively educates and entertains others.

What’s your story?


  1. Nathan Zeldes

    Very true. Back when I was with Intel, I had a page on my (internal) web site called “Campfire stories”, where I shared a few selected stories from my past successes and tribulations driving productive computer use in the company… they were fun yet instructive, and captured the essence of what I did (still do, I suppose) better than any “About” page. I’m considering adding this to my current web site when I have some time…

  2. Liz Guthridge

    “Campfire stories”–what a great term! Thanks so much for sharing. And I’m sure I speak for others, and not just myself, when I say that we’re looking forward to seeing your campfire stories on your website soon.

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