Good stories aren’t just for kindergarten (Guest Commentary)

A well-placed story can take a presentation to the next level and connect with the audience in a meaningful way

Good storytelling is like Velcro. Velcro works by joining one side of hooks with another side of loops, and well-told stories are the hooks and loops that help information stick in the audience’s mind.

When it comes to leadership communication in the business realm, a well-placed story can help a speaker really connect with employees and spice up bland presentations. Consider the following examples.

Diversity made personal

A black diversity executive of a multinational corporation explained the subtleties of diversity to her audience with the following story.

“I was born in the United States but my family moved when I was a baby to Japan. I spent the first nine years of my life there. It was a wonderful and special time for me. I became bilingual and had many friends and remember many happy days.

“When I was eight years old, my five favourite Japanese girlfriends threw a birthday celebration for me. It was the typical experience eight-year-old girls everywhere have — dress up, actually bake the sweets, with huge assistance from patient mothers. My friends decided to make cupcakes and after much giggling and fanfare they unveiled a pan of six cupcakes in front of me. Five of them were yellowcake and one was chocolate. I was surprised and asked who got the chocolate one. They all laughed and said, ‘You do. You are the different one.’”

This executive went on to explain that this was the first time in her life she had ever felt she was different due to ethnicity. She did a wonderful job connecting the story to her thoughts about diversity’s true goals.

A bold-minded Taiwanese researcher, from a very prestigious software company, told a story to emphasize his approach to basic science.

“In my office I have the world’s largest collection of ugly action figures. I do not collect the pretty ones, but all the ugly ones. I have more than 100 of the most dreadful, ugly superheroes and action heroes you have ever seen. Why do I have them? Many people have asked me this question.

“It is because they are so ugly. I imagine the people who designed and made these action figures and ask myself, ‘Why did they make these so ugly?’ Because, you see, I believe that if I can understand the depth of this ugliness, that on the other side I will actually see they are beautiful. That is my approach to research. To look beyond the surface to the elegant beauty that underlies all of our work. Also, I believe that when I leave my office these action figures come to life and play and talk with one another. You may not believe this as I do, but one day I will prove it is true.”

In both instances, these stories had amazing effects on the audiences who received the information. They weren’t mere performances in dramatic or humorous anecdotes, but purposely crafted, first-person narratives that conveyed huge amounts of unspoken, symbolic meaning. They were far more effective than 20 bullet points in a presentation.

Not just entertainment

Storytelling can become an art form for its own sake. Stories need to amplify, clarify and illuminate the subject material, not dominate, sidetrack or simply entertain.

Skilled storytellers use what my late partner in business and research, Boyd Clarke, and I called a “3D method” — which stands for details, dialogue and drama. Their stories contain not only the right amount of detail (a little like Goldilocks, not too much and not too little), but the right kind of detail. All stories, or narrations of previous events, have many details that can be conveyed. The best storytellers select the details that parallel the message they are delivering.

Next they add dialogue. A story moves from description to narrative when real people speak. When dialogue is added, the details gain another dimension and the listener’s mind shifts to a narrative mode.

But to make it three-dimensional, a story must have a dramatic element. What is the emotion conveyed by the story? Is it sobering like the diversity manager’s story? Humorous like the researcher’s story? Sad? Profound? Alarming? Exciting? Optimistic? The best storytellers know in advance what emotional dimension they need to add.

The science behind storytelling

As Elkhorn Goldberg pointed out in his book, The Executive Brain, the frontal cortex is the part of the brain that neatly organizes the bits and pieces into a temporal, logical and “meaningful” story. But it must be set in motion by the part of the brain called the amygdala, which provides an emotional tag to a memory, a “meaning” that helps cement the pieces. In other words data, or facts alone, can’t bring a story to life.

Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error and Looking for Spinoza, said storytelling is a “brain obsession.” John Ratey declared in his book, A User’s Guide to the Brain, that “the brain assembles perceptions by the simultaneous interaction of whole concepts, whole images… it works by analogy and metaphor.”

Stories are simply narrated and extended metaphors. In the July 2005 issue of Scientific American, University of Virginia psychologist Judy DeLoache wrote about the universal aspects of symbolic systems.

“Because of the fundamental role of symbolization in almost everything we do, perhaps no aspect of human development is more important than becoming symbol-minded.” The best communicators constantly and simultaneously use three channels of communication: fact, emotion and symbols. And the symbolic channel’s most powerful ally is a well-told story.

There is ample evidence stories work in a way that facts, spreadsheets and data can’t. They allow people to consider information in a holistic, rather than linear, fashion.

Moreover, research indicates the brain processes information by assembling facts, emotions and symbols into a type of holographic story. In fact, as Damasio suggests, “movies are the closest external representation of the prevailing storytelling that goes on in our minds.” Basically our minds produce and process movies and all our thinking, decision-making and actions are influenced by this mechanism.

When the story is left out…

So what happens when you leave the story out of your presentation? The mind searches for information from its own database to fill in this void. And when that happens the person filling in the blanks may create a totally different movie than the one the leader intended.

A chief executive officer of a prestigious hospital group in the U.S. was speaking to an audience of 200 of his top managers. The topic was growth through acquisition. His presentation consisted of the all-too-familiar series of slides showing cost efficiencies, expansion of services and improved financials. It was a well-delivered, but exclusively factual, presentation. His analysis was correct but he had not filled in the emotional or symbolic channels, which left it up to his audience to finish the movie.

Over a break we noticed the vice-president of nursing, who was shaking her head. One of her staff asked her what she was thinking and she replied: “I know he’s right but, you know, cancer grows too.” And in that moment her staff shook their heads in agreement and the movie they talked about over the break was the danger of growing too fast, without attention to human feelings.

I’ve often wondered if the CEO ever knew the movies-in-the-brain he created unintentionally by avoiding stories.

Ron Crossland is co-author of The Leader’s Voice and vice-chair of Bluepoint Leadership Development, a leadership development consultancy with offices in Oakville, Ont., and Loveland, Ohio. For more information visit www.bluepointleadership.com.

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