Five Reasons to Use Stories to Make a Point

Ever wonder how to best communicate an idea? Or reinforce a core company value? Or introduce a key business concept? Why is it that we often rely on email, reports, or lists on PowerPoint slides to relay critical information to others? Our lives are full of stories. Yet while they are integral to our conversations with family and friends (How was your day? What did you do this past weekend?), they often are not strategically used in the workplace.

Here are five reasons you need to add more stories to your daily work communications.

1. Stories are More Memorable
In many ways, stories are like ballads (think songs by Elvis Presley, the Eagles, and Olivia Newton-John). They have a beginning-words that paint the context (the who, what where, when and why), a middle-a statement of the obstacle, conflict, or challenge which builds to a climax, and an ending-how the situation was resolved and what was learned in the end. Because of their structure, stories are easy to remember and to retell, thus reinforcing the story’s message over and over again.

2. Stories Make for Attentive Listening
Recently I attended local professional association meeting. The speaker’s topic was “Characteristics of Great Leaders.” The presenter was very credible and a good speaker, she had flash animation and quotes from famous people on her slides, and she shared examples from well-known organizations. Yet, ten minutes into her talk, I noticed people looking at their watches, checking their Palm Pilots, browsing through other materials, and having side conversations. However, when she began to tell a story about her five-year-old son, audience members stopped what they were doing and gave her their full attention. Stories captivate us. One might suggest it is a learned trait from childhood when our parents told us bedtime stories. Or perhaps we merely find stories more interesting than other forms of communication because they grab hold of our imagination.

3. Stories Allow People to Discover
Read through the following story. As you do, note to yourself what thoughts come to mind.

For Lack of a System
contributed by Larry P. English, president, INFORMATION IMPACT International, Inc.

The insurance company needed to understand its risks-exactly what it was paying for through its claims. Employees were downloading claims data so the information could be examined in this manner. As they started analyzing the medical diagnosis codes, they uncovered what appeared to be a problem. One region had a high incidence of hemorrhoid codes-so high that it was way outside the normal distribution. We wondered, “What’s going on? What’s causing this problem? Is there some sort of an epidemic we don’t know about?”
Several of us got in touch with the regional claims supervisor. We explained that other departments were using the data, including the actuarial staff, and asked her what she knew about the situation. She exclaimed, “Oh. That’s our data that we use to pay claims. I didn’t know anybody else saw it. We use that particular code to identify claimants who are PITAs-you know-a ‘pain in the ass.’ How else are we to identify problem customers who we need to approach with special caution? If we have to get back in touch with them, this code helps us recognize that there was some sort of problem. This way we’re better prepared to deal with the situation.”
No matter what the problem may be, all “problems seek solutions.” The challenge that comes with this is that the solution may have surprising consequences. So, whenever your problems go in search of a solution, consider whom else the solution may impact.

Did you recall similar situations in your life? Or notice how frequently the wrong solution to a problem is often implemented at work? Or observe how creative the regional claims staff was in generating a way to recognize difficult customers? Stories allow those who hears them to draw personal insights and conclusions, even if the point of the story is given. In this way, stories have the power to teach and inform far beyond the obvious.

4. Stories Touch Us in Four Ways
When you read Larry’s story, did you laugh? What sort of emotion did you experience? And did it touch the human spirit within you? In addition to making us think, stories have the unique ability to connect with our physical being, our heart and our spirit. They often have greater impact on the listener’s behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes than other communication mediums. In fact, many suggest that all stories at their very core are about change. As such, they can influence change in the listener.

5. Stories Forge Connections between the Teller and the Listener
Because of the ways stories touch us, they can foster empathy with the storyteller. If the story is similar to a work or life situation listeners have been in, they will more closely identify with the teller. While these connections may occur at a subliminal level, they can serve to build rapport and enhance relationships.

Call to Action
When given the choice of telling a story or presenting the same information in a more cognitive manner, opt for telling the story. You will command attention and bring about a more significant impact on those who hear it.

“For Lack of a System” reproduced from Stories Trainers Tell by Mary B. Wacker and Lori L. Silverman with permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published by Pfeiffer, a Wiley Imprint, pg. 288.

© Copyright 2003 Lori L. Silverman. All rights reserved.

Lori L. Silverman is the owner of Partners for Progress, a management consulting firm and the co-author of Stories Trainers Tell: 55 Ready-to-Use Stories to Make Training Stick and Critical SHIFT: The Future of Quality in Organizational Performance. For more information, check out www.partnersforprogress.com and www.sayitwithastory.com.


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