Whether helping my kids with homework or coaching a client on an upcoming speech, I am constantly reminded of the many applications for the art of storytelling.
My middle schooler began her U.S. History curriculum this year with a unit on the events that lead up to and have followed the September 11 attacks. Once complete, the class will go back in history and progress chronologically for the remainder of the year. So why start with 9/11?
While current seventh graders were not born at the time of 9/11, this event was so significant to the people surrounding those kids – parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. – who all have a relatively vivid recollection of that time. Like so many sentinel life events, people can easily recall where they were, how they responded and the many milestones that have passed as a result. Kids today, whether they were born and directly remember or not, continue to be impacted by the events of 9/11.
One of the class assignments involved interviewing people about their 9/11 experience. My daughter and I talked at length about the different people impacted and developed a long list of people with truly compelling stories to tell. Some narrowly missed the attack; some were so impacted it changed the course of their career into one of military service; some were present in New York City as the day’s events unfolded – bearing witness to unspeakable horror and true heroism. These individuals all have stories that are all the more powerful when told in the first person. I have to believe this seventh grade U.S. History teacher understood that when issuing this assignment.
How is this relevant as a business application?
Whether conveying data and analytics or trying to train a group of employees, creating a narrative can transform ‘information’ into a ‘memorable moment’ that applies to just about any professional setting.
Asking yourself why you are in business will help you nail down the desired result. The course you take to get accomplish your objectives may take many forms, but engaging through stories provides the kind of context that allows your audience to develop more of a connection to the message. Use the data and the business information to support the elements of your story that will draw a more emotional reaction.
I’m not suggesting that you need to make stories emotional. Examples from real life, humor, personal reflection, comparisons: they all represent different styles that can used to develop your story, and when done well, work across a variety of professional settings.
In addition, when you create a story you are more likely to stay on message. Memorizing points on a slide or a written speech is a challenge for the most polished presenters. Giving someone a story to tell will always have a more natural feel and flow and makes the presenter more comfortable.
One example: A tale of woe
Talking about customer service and sharing a list of tips for improvement can be helpful and informative, but wrapping those same elements into a narrative that illustrates an example of really good or really bad customer service can better demonstrate the real world application of customer service tips.
Telling employees to never be rude (ever) when face-to-face with customers seems like an elementary tip. Most of the audience is going to think, “Of course I would never be rude to the customer.”
Insert story here: If I retell my weekend experience from a favorite restaurant that let me down and why, then the audience can better grasp what I mean when I label something rude. In this case, I had a reservation discrepancy (I arrived before 7:00 p.m. believing that to be my scheduled reservation and they had me down for 7:30 p.m.). Honest mistakes happen and no one is perfect, so I accepted some culpability and was willing to patiently wait out the 30 minutes.
However – this being a small restaurant – I was able to see not one, but four open tables that would have accommodated my party of four. After 15 minutes of waiting, I asked the hostess about the open tables. I fully expected a logical explanation about why they were being held open. But what I received was a sigh and an answer that went something like, “I have your reservation for 7:30, so according to my watch we’re still ahead of schedule.” She did not seat my party early and all open tables remained so well past my recorded reservation time.
I’m not a squeaky wheel and I try in most cases to be as patient and understanding as possible, but I was prepared to (and eventually did) spend over $400 on this one meal. Food was excellent and our servers were attentive and helpful throughout the meal. That said, I will not be returning and I did let the management know of my experience in a letter that followed our visit.
What’s more is that I’m sure the hostess would not have interpreted her own behavior as rude, based on her belief that she was right and I was sat by 7:30 p.m. But if you build you business on going above and beyond for your customers (as this restaurant claims), then my experience represents a complete fail. Stories can help demonstrate some of these nuisances in a way that simple instructive lists cannot.
How can your business use storytelling to be more successful? I’d love to hear your story…