When you need a shift, you need a story

Stories are all about shifts. Shifts from loser to victor, from oppressed to liberated, from lost to found, from unloved to loved.

That’s why stories are such effective tools for communicating a vision of change, for persuading people to think or act differently.

From time to time we still run across business leaders who disparage storytelling and demand ‘the facts, just the facts’. But they are fast being replaced by leaders who embrace story as a tool for making their all-important facts resonate with an audience.

That’s why Columbia and UBC Sauder in Vancouver and other top business schools teach storytelling to students: they understand that a story, well-chosen and well-told, is the fast track to connecting with both the mind and the heart of the listener.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood has a great quote about storytelling: “You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”

We are all hard-wired for stories. As children we learn from stories. As adolescents our stories define who we are. As adults we love few things more than sitting with friends swapping stories. Stories amuse us, excite us, and educate us.

They work so well, on so many levels, because stories go to places in the brain that facts seldom venture.

Ludmila Mladkova of the University of Economics in Prague has been researching leadership and storytelling. In an abstract, she wrote: “There are many methods and tools available in literature that improve and intensify influence of leaders on their followers. Storytelling is one of the most efficient.

“When used properly it helps the leader to explain his ideas to his constituents, to share his knowledge with them, to build shared vision and settle conflicts peacefully.

“Storytelling is the tool that addresses emotions of people not their rational mind. It has the potential to overcome barriers people build to protect themselves against the external world and new ideas.”

“Storytelling is the tool that addresses emotions of people not their rational mind. It has the potential to overcome barriers people build to protect themselves against the external world and new ideas.”

An article in Psychology Today explained it like this: “When we hear facts and data, two parts of our brain are working – Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. We are basically just decoding language.

“When we listen to a story, however, those same two parts are engaged, plus our sensory and motor cortexes – which are activated when we have an experience – so we actually feel the story as if we are a part of it. This increase in brain activity dramatically increases our retention.”

That’s the science. But how do you take story and make it work for you, in your next presentation, or speech, or blog post, or job interview?

That takes us back to the idea that stories are all about shifts. Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling is quoted as saying: “There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”

So what is the other place that you need to take your listeners or readers to? Do they need to shift their beliefs? Do they need to shift their behaviours? Do they need a different perspective?

Psychology Today lists what it calls “30 classic storytelling shifts” any leader may be called on to implement. Here are a few great ideas to get your storytelling juices flowing:

  • From Complexity to Simplicity
  • From Barriers to Bridges
  • From Traditional to Unconventional
  • From Conformity to Rule-breaking
  • From Passive to Active
  • From Following to Leading
  • From Conventional to Original
  • From Vulnerable to Secure
  • From Rigid to Flexible
  • From Failure to Success

Think about the themes, find the stories that will make those concepts resonate with the audience, and you’ll be well on the way to achieving whatever the shift is that you desire.