The Power of Narrative: A Fresh Perspective on Driving Results

Storytelling is the oldest form of entertainment. Good stories tap in to our deep-seated need to make sense of the world. In today’s information age — with its relentless focus on data and ROI — it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that stories, not numbers, are what draw people in.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” said the American poet and political activist, Muriel Rukeyser.

That’s why stories are the best way to ignite a call to action. They give listeners an emotional experience. If you need to connect with people — whether a huge crowd or a close friend — tell a good story.

Peter Guber, an award-winning Hollywood producer and CEO, calls stories a “state-of-the-heart technology.” In an article titled, “The Inside Story,” he writes:

“In four decades in the movie business, I’ve come to see that stories…are the most effective form of human communication, more powerful than any other way of packaging information. And telling purposeful stories is certainly the most efficient means of persuasion in everyday life…

[Stories are] the most effective way of translating ideas into action, whether you’re green-lighting a $90 million film project, motivating employees to meet an important deadline, or getting your kids through a crisis.

They provide emotional transportation, moving people to take action on your cause because they can very quickly come to psychologically identify with the characters in a narrative or share an experience—courtesy of the images evoked in the telling. “

In the workplace, a powerful story is a way to demonstrate an organization’s impact, whether you’re a small nonprofit or a multinational corporation.

Tips for Better Storytelling

When telling a story, aim for the heart. You want the audience to identify emotionally with the characters and experiences. After all, once you have created a connection with the audience, they, in turn, will share your story and become a passionate advocate for your organization.

At the top of any presentation, consider using a vignette that grabs the attention of the listeners quickly so that they will be open to your message.

For example, I recently heard the chair of a major conference make opening remarks. The event was designed in a totally different format than in years past, which was going to be a risk. He wanted the audience to be immersed in the experience without distraction. He asked participants to put their whole selves into the conference without inhibitions. So, he began his remarks with this story from the renowned children’s author, Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”):

“Once, a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.”

That, to me, was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it!”

Another example of telling a story to capture an audience occurred during a recent training session I gave to a group about fundraising. I wanted to drive home the notion that fundraising is not an art that is practiced alone. First and foremost, you cannot ask everyone for money on your own.  You need to build a team of people who can partner with you and you have to play ideas off of each other, brainstorm, and think creatively and out of the box.  But, most importantly, fundraising is about asking donors to help causes.

So I began with the following story, whose author is unknown:

A father and son were walking down the road. They came upon a large stone in their path and the father turned to his son and said, in a challenging voice, “I bet you can move that large stone if you use everything that you have, everything that you possess.”

The son looked proudly at his father, and accepted the challenge. He got a grip on the stone and began to lift. The stone budged and began to move, but was so heavy, it fell. The son, not wanting to disappoint his father, took a deep breath, and with all his strength, grabbed the stone and lifted again.

The stone began to move, but it was too much for him to handle. He looked up, disappointed, and said. “I tried and I couldn’t do it.” The father said, “Son, I know you can move that stone if you use everything you possess.”

Confused, the son looked at his father and said, “I used every ounce of strength that I had. I used everything within me. I used everything I had and I couldn’t move the stone, father.”

The father looked at his son and said, “No, not everything. You didn’t ask me to help.”  

The point, of course, is that good storytelling breaks down peoples’ mental walls. For whatever reason, people often erect psychological barriers that prevent them from being open to new information. Facts and figures alone cannot bypass those roadblocks.

As Harvard’s Howard Gardner says, “Stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”

Make sure that you have yours ready.

Reflection Questions:

1. Are you telling stories about the impact your organization is having on real people?
2. Do your employees have interesting life stories that would resonate with your target audiences?
3. What is the story of your organization? Who built it, who leads it, and how has it changed over the years?

Interested in training on telling your organizational or personal narrative?  Click here

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