The Power of Telling Stories

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In marketing, a good product is important - the right price will help - but there’s no substitute for a great story.
— David Nomchong

Tell Stories

A story or a metaphor is a persuasive use of words because stories persuade with emotion. Until recently, business communication often neglected stories. However, if you look in your local bookshop now you will see a growing number of business books that include stories. Ken Blanchard pioneered a series of books teaching management in a story form, starting with the One Minute Manager. Also, Annette Simmons wrote The Story Factor: Inspiration, influence and persuasion through the art of storytelling. In support of storytelling she asserts that:

In order to learn about influence we must leave the comfort of models, sequences, and step-by-step recipes. The magic of influence is more in what we say and who we are. This 'how-who' stuff defies categories, definition and rational analysis. In the realm of feeling and emotions (by definition: irrational), ideas aren't organised in a traditional sense.

To persuade for results, we urge you to use stories. Some persuaders will be uncomfortable with this, but we suggest you start by watching and listening to people who are good persuaders, sales people, negotiators, psychiatrists, counselors and consultants persuade with stories and metaphors.

A careful choice of metaphor can be very persuasive. For the business world, Sue Knight discusses metaphors in her practical book, NLP at Work:

Excellent communicators and influencers use metaphor to capture and hold attention... Metaphors have been with us in many forms for as long as we can remember. Stories in the form of fairy tales, proverbs and parables are passed down from generation to generation. Metaphors are so rooted in our upbringing that for many people they act as an anchor for relaxation and involvement. So, metaphors bypass any conscious blocks or resistance and slip into the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind responds to the challenge of the metaphor by finding a unique solution that fits the listener's experience and needs.

Imagine that you work for a company that has a problem competing in the marketplace because they are focused internally and rarely consider the needs of the customer of the actions of competitors. How would you persuade them to change their perspective?

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Companies like this often view the company as a machine - turn the handle or press the button and the results they want will come out. Combined with the obvious methods of data and logic, the metaphor can be use to persuade. Here the persuasive presenter might suggest that the senior managers think of the company as a machine and discuss some of the implications of this. Then the presenter might go on to suggest another way to look at the company is an ocean-going racing yacht. Here the winds are the needs of the customer that change and alter with time. The tides are the actions of the competitors that also change. If the financial target of the business is the destination, how do we steer the company there? The captain of the yacht will monitor the winds and tides regularly and the crew adjust the sails to ensure they reach the destination. The presenter might ask what this means for the company, what changes do we need to make to ensure our yacht gets to its destination?

Changing the metaphor that people use is a powerful way to influence individuals and organisations. For presenters who wish to change organisation, Gareth Morgan's books, such as Images of Organisations, are challenging reading and offer different metaphors. 

Choosing Good Stories

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Choosing good stories has become much easier ever since the publication of Made to Stick by Heath and Heath, 2007. This book analyses what makes stories memorable and finishes with a checklist of what makes stories sticky and memorable. The checklist is a useful way to choose stories to support your message.

Another useful tool is the story matrix introduced by Craig Wortmann in his book What' your Story? Using stories to ignite performance and be more successful, 2006. The story matrix is a table to collect stories to persuade for a particular purpose. Down the side of the table are four story types - success, failure, fun and legends. Success stories show what's important to be successful; failure stories help others learn how to improve their performance too. Fun stories, are real-life events when things go wrong or unexpected things happen, making us smile or laugh. Legends are stories from outside or inside the business you have heard many times, stories that inspire or remind about something important.

Across the top of the table are the five areas that you are trying to influence. The book uses the example of five leadership skills: culture, execution, sales, service, teamwork and managing yourself. So, with five leadership skills and four different kinds of story, there are spaces for 20 possible stories about leadership. In each of the 20 spaces, you can write a brief version of the story, then the lessons from the story and then the applications for the story.

Not every space in the story matrix needs to be filled. As long as there is at least one story in each column, then you can use stories to persuade. Once you have created the story matrix, then in this example when you want to persuade somebody about leadership, you would scan the story matrix and pick a story or two before you met them.

The story matrix adds some structure to using stories and ensures you capture the best stories to be a more persuasive presenter.