Stories. The ultimate communication tool.

It had happened again and I was feeling terrible. I was in an operational role and had missed something. I felt like a goalkeeper who had just let a ball through to the back of the net. The mistake would cost the company, and it was in my area of responsibility. I got on well with my boss but it was still going to be a difficult conversation. I got all my facts together and a suggested way forward. I knocked on the meeting room door.

I entered the room. The first thing my boss did was ask how I felt. He then told me about a previous role where he had made a big mistake. He had gone to his boss with the bad news, thinking he could lose his job. Instead, he received the same question, “how do you feel?” He felt a weight of relief.

By telling me the story he was showing empathy. He had been there before and expected that I’d be feeling awful. He could have just asked for the facts. That would have been reasonable. He could have berated me one-on-one or in front of other staff. But instead he used the most powerful tool he had at his disposal. A story.

We then went on to resolve the problem and find the best way forward. He kept the relationship intact but did not remove accountability. I felt relief and strong motivation to put in place a swift resolution.

And that is the power of stories. They can capture emotion. They can communicate both the details and the big picture. That makes them the most effective communication tool.

I have learnt a lot about story-telling in the workplace from Shawn Callahan of Anecdote and Gabrielle Dolan. I introduced story-telling as a tool with a leadership team I’m working with. We have gained some insights through the process.

What makes a good story?

Some of our key learnings:

Stories need to be true and purposeful

True. We can’t tell a story with conviction if its false. And we’d lose credibility if our audience found out it was incorrect.

Purposeful. We need to know why we are telling the story and what we hope to achieve. This will help us keep the story brief (1 – 3 minutes) and to the point.

On ramps and off ramps

How to enter or exit the story in a natural way. These form the link between the current situation and the story. An example of an on ramp to begin the story. “The way we approach this challenge is important. It reminds me of a time when…[insert story here].” An example of an off ramp, linking a story to a current context. “[insert story here]… So when I think about that situation I’m reminded of why [the key message] is important to what we’re facing today.”

We don’t announce that we are going to tell a story. The audience could turn their minds more to the telling than the content. Just launch into it as naturally as you might with friends around the dinner table.

Creating a tag

Every story needs to have a point or a purpose. This is how we link the telling of stories to a specific situation or challenge you are facing. Think about certain stories that you have. Tell them to a friend. Then ask your friend what they think that story means. This creates a tag in your memory for when you could use the story. The story could have a few meanings. You can change the way you tell it depending on the circumstance. When you face a challenge that relates to that tag, you could tell that story to increase the impact of your message.

Paint a picture for your audience

We need to tell a story in such a way that a person who is listening can imagine themselves the room. With you in the situation. We need characters and dialogue. We need feelings and emotions. These are the easiest bits to leave out. If you do, it can just become a list of events. Not a story.

Practice, practice, practice

We often tell stories in social environments as something that comes naturally.  So when it comes to the workplace, we don’t think we need to practice. One thing that we learned as a group was that practice was essential. Write it out. Tell someone else. Revise. Repeat. We should practice, ensuring that the delivery of our story is the best that it can be. Create a bank of stories that you can review periodically and practice.

Get telling…

After doing this piece of work, stories seem to pop up everywhere. I think that’s the nature of being human. We connect and resonate with stories. It still takes courage to use stories at work if we’re not used to it. So give it a go…. You only get better by trying.

Let’s create a more human workplace. Let’s tell more stories to capture the hearts and the minds of the people that we are trying to lead or influence.

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
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