“Let me tell you a story.” Those 6 words hold so much power. You could make the case that stories are some of the most valuable treasures in our human lives. They are how we know our own history, how we entertain ourselves and others, how we connect. Stories are how we pass down our traditions and culture and how we shape the societies and communities in which we live. That’s why we talk about storytelling so often.
Last Monday on our blog, we talked about some ways to improve your conversational storytelling skills. If you missed that blog, check it out here. Today we want to transition to how we can use storytelling in the workplace to help achieve our professional goals. In order to do that, we’ll look at three particularly moving types of narratives: atrocity tales, war stories, and happy outcome narratives.
3 Storytelling Strategies that Move People
In the book Symbols, Selves, and Social Reality, the authors offer three types of narratives that have proven to be particularly effective when it comes to moving people. They offer these categories in light of organizing larger activist causes. But there’s no denying that these categories can apply to workplace goals and presentations because they have incredible persuasive power. These are the types of stories that can help take your presentation from interesting or thought-provoking, to the kind of message that really gets people moving. Let’s discuss them in further detail.
First, Sandstrom and his colleagues point to what they call atrocity tales. They define them as “stories that convey a sense of injustice emerging from some kind of negative personal experience.” These stories serve the purpose of pointing us to things that aren’t right, aren’t fair, or otherwise aren’t as they should be. And they can span the range from things that mildly surprise or upset us to things that downright shock and anger us.
For example, a presenter selling a cybersecurity program could use this type of narrative to boost sales. He might tell his audience and potential clients a story of when a company was hacked. He can give details on the amount of time, data, and revenue they lost from the security breech. This disturbing incident would resonate with the audience. Why? Because they can picture what it would be like if something similar happened to them. They’d want to avoid this situation, so the story would motivate them to purchase the program he is presenting. Depending on the nature of the content, atrocity tales have the potential to elicit strong emotional responses from your audience. So you want to be careful about how you use them in your presentations.
In the book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle says that we need to be careful not to paint something as a catastrophe. When the story becomes something so catastrophic that it seems like we can’t do anything about it, we won’t. We will hope and pray and maybe even donate a little. But we won’t talk about it for too long and we won’t change our life patterns. Turkle says that is because we see catastrophes as “acts of God,” meaning they are out of our hands. So when you tell atrocity tales, make sure to point to the role human actions played in causing the atrocity. That way that your audience clearly sees that their own human actions can help solve or avoid future atrocities.
The next type of persuasive narrative you might want to use in your presentations is war stories. Sandstrom and colleagues define these as fortifying myths, saying they “talk about hard times to show the resiliency, creativity, and perseverance” of humans as they fight back against troubles. This type of narrative might be effective if your company is in the middle of a sales slump or otherwise difficult time. A war story could help to remind your audience that others have tackled hard times before.
In an article for Harvard Business, professional storyteller and executive coach Vanessa Boris says, “Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have to influence, teach, and inspire . . . This holds true in the business world, where an organization’s stories, and the stories its leaders tell, help solidify relationships in a way that factual statements encapsulated in bullet points or numbers don’t.” So don’t fill your presentation with slide after slide of bullet points outlining sales goals. Instead, try something new. Try telling the audience a war story. One that reminds them that they have the strength and power and creativity to fight and to win.
The final type of story outlined by Sandstrom and his colleagues is the happy outcome narrative. They say that this type of narrative “highlights the successes or victories” that result when people work together to affect change. Unlike the other two types discussed above, the authors say that this type of story “provides a moral boost and directly reinforces” involvement and activity. Perhaps most importantly, Sandstrom and the others say that happy outcome narratives offer hope.
You might find it effective to use this type of narrative in combination with one of the previous two. This sets up a light/dark, problem/solution, hopeless/hopeful type of content construction that appeals to almost any audience. Let’s go back to the example of a presentation given during a time when a company is seeing declining sales. An audience in that situation would find comfort in the story of other companies who persevered through difficult recessions. The story would show them they aren’t alone. And that all hope is not lost.
The new year is a time for setting both personal and professional goals. As you do, I hope you’ll reflect on the role stories can play in helping you achieve those goals. The more you begin to infuse your presentations with narratives, the more you’ll see the persuasive power that storytelling holds. As Boris says, “Your goal in every communication is to influence your target audience (change their current attitudes, belief, knowledge, and behavior). Information alone rarely changes any of these. Research confirms that well-designed stories are the most effective vehicle for exerting influence.”
In Stanford University’s video “Harnessing the Power of Stories,” Jennifer Aaker cites research that “stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.” This doesn’t mean we don’t need facts and statistics in our presentations. It just means that we need to rethink the way we present them. If we can embed them within persuasive narratives, we move our audiences more powerfully and accomplish our goals more effectively.
Jerome Bruner has spent his life researching and writing about the power of narratives. In his article, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” he says, “we organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative—stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on. Narrative is a conventional form, transmitted culturally and constrained by each individual’s level of mastery.” Perhaps that’s why we talk so much about narratives. We know that they provide powerful content in almost any context. As Bruner says, the power of stories is constrained only by the skills we have in being able to tell them. So we must learn to tell them well.
If you are ready to improve your storytelling skills and infuse your presentations with powerful narratives that move your audience, get in touch with one of our experts now.