Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have as leaders to shape understanding and connect with others in a profound way. The ability to craft and tell a good story can be learned, practiced and honed over time. It is also a skill that’s vastly underused, in part because it requires intention and thought to come up with a metaphor or scenario that will resonate with your audience.
In this edition of Communique, I interview Karen Eber, CEO and Chief Storyteller of the Eber Leadership Group, to find out how and why good storytelling helps us make deep connections, the neuroscience behind it, and tips for getting started. This is the first of a series of related articles. But before we get started, here’s a story about a story from Karen.
Make Waffles, Not Spaghetti
Have you ever walked into a room and felt the energy was off? That is exactly what this room felt like with an HR team I was working with a few years ago gathered to brainstorm ways to bring the organization through a major restructuring.
There was a heaviness across the room. As I looked around, I saw dark circles under eyes and sagging shoulders on each person. They clearly would have preferred to be anywhere but in this room. It was almost if you could hear them thinking “past attempts at change management never worked…this probably won’t be any different either.” I decided to take a different approach and said:
“Picture a plate of spaghetti. It is a tangled mess of noodles that you can’t shape. If you try to pick up one strand, 12 others are tangled around it. If you manage to get one free, it ends up smacking you in the chin while eating it. This is what your employees’ brains look like when facing change: a tangled mess of spaghetti. It is hard for them to think clearly, prioritize or know where to focus. Their minds swirl, cortisol levels rise and stress increases. Their thinking can become as jumbled as a plate of spaghetti noodles.
What if your job as leaders is to make waffles for your employees? A waffle has rows of neatly organized squares. You can focus on one square at a time, not paying attention to the others until you are ready. What if you help employees focus on what they can and ignore the pieces they can’t control? Eliminate the noise and the confusion. Focus people on what is needed that day.”
I could tell I was onto something with this group. The energy shifted in the room, eyes lit up and people laughed, becoming animated. As we continued the planning, they would say things like “You are making spaghetti here, how can we be clear with employees?” Or “How can I help you make waffles with this?”
The best part was at the end of the meeting. The Italian in the group stood up and said, “As much as it pains me to say this, even I will make sure to make waffles, not spaghetti for employees.”
Q: Why is storytelling emerging as such a critical tool for leaders?
Storytelling is the most powerful way to engage someone neurologically to open the way for new thinking. When we communicate information, we activate two small language processing centers. The recipient comprehends information but doesn’t interact with it or set it to memory. When you tell a story, you engage the entire brain through the senses, creating neurological stimulation as though they are experiencing the story first-hand. (This is why you can sit motionless in a movie theater with your heart racing during an action movie.) This neural coupling, or mirror imaging between the storyteller and audience’s brain creates an artificial reality experience. Descriptions like “His hands were rough like sandpaper,” activate senses and emotions. Memory is stored with the emotions and easier to remember. A story neurologically changes a person and helps them see something they can no longer unsee.
Storytelling is also a great way to build trust. Stories create empathy in the recipient through the act of sharing something new and unexpected (even when not personal). That empathy increases trust in the recipient and releases oxytocin. This is why team offsites (including virtual ones) are so powerful. Instead of running through normal agenda items, there is space for sharing stories that build empathy and trust in one another.
Q. Why do leaders shy away from telling stories?
Many leaders avoid telling stories because they feel they need to communicate with something “hard” like data, and that stories are “too soft.” However, we know that data doesn’t change behavior, emotions do. If data alone could change behavior, we would all drink eight glasses of water, sleep eight hours, floss daily and exercise 30 minutes each day. We make decisions through our emotions and past experiences. Storytelling is the best way to help filter the 34Gb of information we process daily into a shared understanding. Stories help bring meaning to the data to ensure people arrive at the same takeaway, and they work to create a connection regardless of gender, generation or geography.
Q. How can leaders get started crafting and telling stories?
First, consider your audience. Storytelling is about the recipient, and not the person telling the story. When telling a story, start by understanding the mindset of your audience. What is their current understanding and perception of the topic? Are they enthusiastic, resistant or skeptical? Are they optimistic, worried, or neutral? This will influence your angle and approach. A story is a journey to build new thinking. You can’t start people on that journey without imagining your audience’s starting point. When you present information in an unexpected way, you help the person begin to see something differently.
Next, look for stories all around you. You don’t need to limit yourself to your personal experiences. You can share stories of others, whether you’ve observed them firsthand, read about them or heard about them elsewhere. (Of course, if you present your story as factual, make sure your sources are reputable!) You can leverage videos, photos or articles to tell the story, in whole or in part. You can use metaphors, analogies or some combination to create meaning. The goal is to find something that sparks an idea that can light up the brain of your audience. That said, the most powerful stories, and the ones that elicit the strongest responses, tend to be based on your experiences. When you make yourself vulnerable by sharing something from your own experiences, you will see a dramatic difference in the empathic response.
Build a story repository. Keep a list of story ideas, whether in a notebook, on your phone, a scrap of paper, or by recording your ideas to listen to later. Think about how your own experiences taught you something that others can learn from. Consider how what you observed can be an analogy that you can use to make a memorable point later on. If you build a list and keep adding to it, you’ll have no shortage of story ideas you can draw on and embellish when you need one. Set aside at least five minutes each day to jot down story ideas, even if it’s just a few words that will jog your memory later on.
Storytelling is a muscle that begins when you set the intention to tell a story. “That presentation was filled with too many stories and not enough charts and figures,” said no one, ever. Decide to start your next meeting or one-on-one with a story. Ask for feedback from your recipients. Encourage your teams to start to share stories. I have never seen someone regret sharing a story…they’ve only regretted failing to use stories.
Karen Eber is the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group. To read more of her stories (and to sign up for a monthly story), visit the Brain Food section of her website. You can also follow Karen on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
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