When it comes to communicating an important message, people don’t care about the facts. They care about the things that touch, move and inspire them. Stories work where facts don’t because humans don’t always make rational decisions. We make decisions based on emotion and then look for the facts that support those decisions.
If you want to communicate powerful messages in business, there are two things to keep in mind. First, you should use stories to craft engaging and personal experiences that relate to the point you are trying to make. Second, don’t rely only on facts. Facts matter most when the audience is rationalizing a decision they have already made on an emotional level.
What to do when facts don’t matter
We hear stories every day, but learning to tell stories isn’t easy. While we are comfortable with the role that stories play in television, film, and writing, we don’t always understand the power of storytelling in business.
I was recently helping a client craft a presentation that communicated their dedication to a particular set of values when I recalled a moment when I used a story to connect a business idea with the needs and desires of the audience.
In 2004, about a year after I had moved back to Houston I was asked to speak to a group of students about career development. There were about 20 students in the room, and I had been fielding a variety of questions on resumes and interviewing when one of them asked, “As a manager what are some things that you believe matter most to you?” It was a challenging question that I hadn’t expected anyone to ask. I knew that my answer would include two things “employees are appreciating assets” and “and don’t profess values you don’t honestly believe in”, but saying those would create an immediate crisis of credibility. This group of students was at the University of Houston, in the heart of Enron country. There was even the possibility that there was a student or two who had family members that had been affected by the scandal. There was little chance that I could say anything about “values” combined with “value your employees” without their eyes glazing over. After a few seconds of thinking I told them the following story:
When I graduated from college, I thought I was on top of the world. I had been in the top 10% of my high school class, done well in college, and was one of only a few college students hired by a fast growing consulting firm. I hadn’t experienced a lot of work failure at that point in my life, so I felt pretty good about how I was progressing. Then it happened. I made a costly mistake. It wasn’t one of those ‘oh snap you deleted the database or lost a bazillion dollars’ mistakes, but it was big enough to be noticeable. When my manager called me to talk about it, I was pretty nervous. Would I be fired? Would I be taken off the project? I fully expected some scolding, lots of teeth gnashing and maybe even a statement like “boneheaded move” thrown in. What happened not only surprised me but totally affected the way I felt about managing and leadership. He started by saying ‘Today, was educational for both of us…’, he said, ‘That was a pretty big mistake you made today, but I’m not going to scream and yell about it. I have always believed that employees are assets that appreciate. As a manager, I can either make a positive or negative investments in you. Yelling or chastising would be a negative investment at this point. You made a mistake; you know that, and I know you understand how to process it and avoid a similar problem in the future. The best thing I can do is thoroughly explain why it’s a mistake, the impact it has on the company and your co-workers, and then give you the freedom to make it again.’ Yep, he said that, and I looked at him with the same puzzled look you have right now. He was giving me the freedom to make future mistakes so that I wouldn’t fear taking the risks necessary to excel in the position. Then I remembered the first day we met, and he said “I have a few beliefs that I live by, the biggest is that I will invest in employees because they are a more important factor in company success than most managers believe. Plus smart, confident, employees make for better results all around.” I guess he did believe that. That story sums up two things I think are important…
Take a moment and think about what you just read. It was a story intended to communicate a personal value. Annette Simmons calls this a “Values in Action” story in her book Story Factor. Regardless of the type of story, when it comes to business there are two things to remember:
- It communicates in a way most adults can understand, and it gets you to stop evaluating “facts” and ask questions like “what happened next?” or “does this apply to me?”
- There is a point. Not all stories have a point, but when you use them in a business environment, they should.
As technology becomes more complex, those who can clarify and connect complex ideas will experience the most success. Storytelling will be a big part of that, but like any other skill you have to practice.