The role of the story in persuasive communication

How many stories do you have?  My friend Ian Berry, a renowned speaker/coach/mentor based in Adelaide, once told me he had a mental library of about 95 stories (if that’s not the precise number, it was lots – believe me!).

This came up at a recent Speakeasy session and we got talking about the power of the story and the many uses we find for storytelling in the business world. Here’s a few:

Elevator Pitch

The 30-60 seconds or so you have to explain to someone what you do. Here’s a dilemma – keep it the same or vary it? I belong to the latter school. Those who recommend you keep it the same claim this helps to cement others’ understanding of what you do, helping them recognise an opportunity for you when it arises.

The problem here is that by continually repeating the same old phrases, YOU sound bored with it and if the audience has heard you say it before (common with regular networking groups) THEY get bored with it too. The analogy here is a business blog. Imagine a blog that always had the same article in it, the theory being let’s cement people’s perception of what we do. It would be the world’s dullest (and least read) blog.

My view is you should vary it, but always so it relates to your core theme. For example, I did my 60 seconds as a guest at BNI a few months ago and asked the group if they’d heard of James Alexander Gordon. He’s the chap who’s read out the football results on the BBC for years and his vocal delivery is very distinctive – Manchester United 4 (high pitch), Arsenal 1 (low). The group had a guess at the score with the next result, but the meaning of the story (the importance of vocal tone and HOW you say things) relates to what I teach people through Speakeasy.

So keep it interesting by varying it. Pick up on something in the news that day – the Wikileaks story if you deal with data security, the floods in Australia if you’re into insurance, etc. The consistent element is what these stories relate to (your core message/competence). But variety keeps it fresh and enhances your credibility and impact.

Stories in conversations

It’s really useful having a few stories to trot out when the occasion arises. If you meet someone at a networking event, finding common ground will help build rapport. If you’ve had a similar experience or read the same article or seen the same movie, you’ve got an opportunity to build rapport by sharing your story.

But be careful of playing ping pong – batting stories back and forth. That just implies you can’t wait for them to shut up so you can have YOUR say! It helps when you enter their story by asking for clarification, referring to an earlier section or just giving signals that you’re engaged and interested.

Being tuned in

A lot of comedians use observational material – stuff they see in everyday situations (an argument in a restaurant, a queue in the supermarket, etc).  They see significance in these incidents because they’re mentally tuned in and can craft these things into comedy gold. And of course they come out as stories.

We can learn from this in business, not only by seeing opportunities where others see nothing, but by getting our employees/team to be on the lookout too. Get into the habit of ‘pooling’ stories that can be shared, analysed and used to good effect. You might learn some lessons from this shared intelligence, or find some terrific material that enhances your reputation in the eyes of your clients/network. It also gets your staff into the shoes of your customers.

The narrative arc

Human beings like things in 3’s – and in the story world that’s beginning, middle and end. So when you’re putting across your message a nice 3 part structure works well. That might be PROBLEM, SOLUTION, LEGACY. In other words, this is the issue or pain, here’s our answer for getting rid of it, and this is why life will be better as a result. Movie directors like Steven Spielberg are good storytellers. Remember Jaws?

(Set the scene – nice seaside resort approaching the main holiday season).

Problem – dirty great big shark starts eating tourists.

Solution – mayor hires a fisherman, policeman and marine biologist to hunt it down.

Legacy – although one of them gets killed, they terminate the shark and get the tourist business back on track.

A similar approach to explaining your ‘story’ helps gets the message across.

Case Studies

The Big Society is a difficult concept for people to grasp. It’s a bit fluffy, a bit abstract. But when you give an example of how it works, people start to ‘get it’. You need a bit of big-picture scene setting at first, but it helps to occasionally ‘zoom in’ on something smaller (a specific case study) to really get your message across.

The other aspect of case studies is it establishes your credibility with your audience. You might CLAIM to be no.1 for customer service in your industry, but where’s the proof? Without it you’re expecting the audience to take your word for it. But a story that’s relevant and well told allows your audience to make their OWN mind up about your standards and values. And it’s a lot more enjoyable and memorable too.

ALL these examples underline the importance of the story in positively influencing people. This “once upon a time” stuff isn’t just for kids – it’s the bedrock of persuasive communication.

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