Business communication gurus have been touting the importance of using story to influence listeners for years. Because of this, most communicators understand the value of telling a story in a customer conversation, a team meeting, a one-on-one, or a keynote.
But what’s so great about telling a story?
Instead of answering this question from a communicator’s perspective, let’s look at it from the view of a listener. Doing so helps us take a more empathetic view of what our own audience wants and needs, leading us to give them the same things we as listeners crave.
Stories Engage Listeners
Have you ever been listening to a presentation and the speaker suddenly says, “Let me tell you a story”? For most of us, our ears perk up, we look up from our phones, and we give the presenter our attention.
Why? Because we love stories. Stories hit our brains at an angle straightforward facts, data, or statements simply cannot. Studies show when we hear a story, our brains release dopamine into our bloodstreams. Following the progression of a story produces a profound feeling of pleasure.
After a lifetime of experiencing stories—TV shows, movies, novels—our brains know stories give us a pleasure kick and, like Pavlov’s famous dog, our brains’ mouths water knowing we’re about to hear one.
Is it bad for a communicator to use facts, data, or statements? No. Not at all. They appeal to the logical side of listeners’ minds. But stories engage minds in a different way, bringing those other elements to life. As author Lisa Cron puts it in her book Story or Die, “Story is what humanizes facts and makes them accessible.”
Again, think of yourself as a listener. Do relevant, well-told, effectively structured stories engage you? Do they help get your attention, re-focusing you on the speaker and the topic at hand? Do you even feel a little relieved when a communicator tells a story after having been in facts, data, and statements mode?
What’s good for you is good for your listeners. At Duarte, our golden rule is, “Never give a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.” Would you want to sit through a presentation without a story? If not, don’t be the kind of presenter who overlooks story to the detriment of your audience and their story hungry brains.
Stories Build Connections
Imagine you’re listening to a leader communicate to an audience about the common challenges they face. The leader offers advice and direction about how listeners can change tactics and overcome their obstacles. Basically, the leader is communicating a fair amount of instruction.
Then, the leader opens up and tells a story about a time when they faced a similar challenge. They confess their shortcomings in terms of skills, mindsets, self-doubt, or overall insecurities. Then, they talk about how they either succumbed to those shortcomings and missed their goal, or discovered a tool (product, insight, or guidance) which helped them reach their goal.
How would a story like that affect your view of the leader?
Would your eyes go wide, shocked that a leader was, in fact, fallible? Would your respect for the leader plummet because they admitted a time when they didn’t naturally have what it took to succeed? Would you see them worse than you saw them before?
Or would you gain admiration and respect for the leader? Would something in you appreciate their humility and openness? Would you see them less as a superhero and more as a human with the ability to grow and change and find the tools necessary to succeed?
Would you be more willing to take their advice on how to face your challenges by hearing the story of how they learned (the hard way) to face theirs? And, by the end of the story, would you feel more connected to that leader?
Often, leaders feel a hesitancy to open up and share personal stories. Why? Because many people have been taught that vulnerability equals weakness. But this isn’t true.
We’ve discovered, in the thousands of speakers we at Duarte have worked with, that when a leader opens up and tells a true, authentic story about themselves which includes a moment of weakness, listeners don’t look down on them, they look up to them more.
Deep down, as listeners, we know all leaders and humans are fallible. No one is Superman. Everyone has overcome challenges.
When an audience hears a leader share a vulnerable story, they feel more connected to the leader. “Hey,” they think, “that CEO is like me. We both struggle sometimes.” When that happens, the audience is more likely to take the leader’s advice and apply it to themselves.
Leaders who see themselves as servant leaders know they need to open up, share vulnerable moments, and tell stories which deliver the insights and direction audiences need.
Are you a leader? How can you tell a story to the people on your team to help them connect with you better and let them know you’re a human who has overcome shortcomings to succeed?
Use a Story to Describe the Future
Imagine you’re listening to a communicator who is trying to persuade you to buy a product or service, adopt a new way of working, or apply an insight or bit of wisdom. Their goal is to inspire you to act on their call to action because acting it will positively impact you in some way.
The communicator gives you a bunch of data on what they want you to buy, adopt, or apply. “Speeds and feeds,” success metrics, promises about what will be accomplished if you take them at their word.
Something in you isn’t quite “seeing” what they’re saying. Sure, you get the numbers they’re throwing out, and you understand the supposed benefits, and how the cost of change will be greatly offset by all you’ll get as a result.
Then, the communicator tells a story. They don’t just tell any story, though. They tell a story about another person or organization who bought the product, adopted the system, or acted on the morsel of wisdom.
They describe a person or organization (the Hero of the story) who wanted something (their Goal), but a roadblock was standing in the way (the Obstacles). They then speak about how someone came along (a Mentor) offering them a product, service, system, or wisdom (the Tool). The Hero then had to choose between doing things the same way or using the tool to achieve their Goal (Decision). After weighing the costs, the person or organization bought, adopted, or acted upon what they were offered, resulting in success (Outcome).
Now, this story isn’t about you. It’s about someone else or a different company, team, or group of people, altogether. But something in this story resonates with you. Though you’re hearing a story about someone else, you listen to it through the lens of… you.
You identify with that Hero. You have a similar goal. You face similar obstacles. You want what they want and you can’t get it for the same reasons as them.
By listening to a story about someone else, you envision something: a better, possible future for you. You want the outcome the person or organization in the story achieved! You want those benefits!
Only then do you feel a deep urge to buy, sign up, change, or act. Why? Because in someone else’s story, you heard your own possible story and you “saw” the way to get there.
By telling a story about another customer, client, team, or yourself, you’re not just telling a story about those “heroes.” You’re bringing to life the core idea you want to move an audience toward and help them imagine the beautiful future they’ll experience if they make the same decision.
Use a story to paint a word picture of what’s possible for your listeners. Help them see a better future and use story to inspire them to act.
As a listener, you like to hear stories. They engage you, connect you with the speaker, and give you a glimpse of a better future and how to attain it.
Your listeners are no different. They like to hear stories. They want to feel engaged, connected, and able to see the way forward.
Be an effective and empathetic communicator and tell your audience a story.
Illustrated by Alexis Macias