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A powerful story can inspire people to want to change

Insight

11 February 2019

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In times of great change, stories can be a leader’s most powerful communication tool. In this blog we explore the psychology of stories and how you can harness their power for leading change in your organisation.

As a leader taking people through change, its highly likely your people are sharing stories about your leadership, your handling of the change and about the organisation itself. You may not like it, but it will be happening.

People are wired to respond emotionally to any kind of change, and in the absence of a coherent and well-communicated narrative from leadership it is natural for stories to be made up.

Instead of letting these ‘corridor’ stories influence people’s perception, you can take ownership of the story yourself, by crafting an authentic narrative that shifts hearts and minds into the direction you are taking the organisation.

With a story, you can spark action and inspire people to join you, trust you, to back you and do the work of spreading your message about the big changes your organisation is making such as a culture change, a new leader, a re-brand or even a restructure.

Storytelling can become your best new ally, helping you bring people onboard.

A brilliant example of a leadership speech, using a story, is Barack Obama’s Fired up, Ready to go. Obama’s story starts with a small event about himself and ends with a rallying call to change the world together. He turns a small idea into a big vision, starting with “I” and finishing with “we”.

Another excellent example of using personal stories, which promote a social message, is one of the most watched Ted Talks by Susan Cain, author of Quiet Revolution. Cain is on a mission ‘to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all’.

For a powerful reality check, and world-class example of using personal experience to influence change consider Malala Yousafzai. Age 15, Malala survived an attempted Taliban assassination in Pakistan, and has gone on to campaign and speak on the world’s stage for girls’ rights everywhere.

Neuroscience has found that the human brain responds to storytelling in a real way.

Storytelling has been in existence for as long as humans have been on this planet, which means our brains are wired to engage with the stories we read and hear, making stories extremely effective when used with purpose and a clear direction.

Paul J Zak, director of the [US] Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, discovered that when an audience listens to a compelling character-driven story containing a dramatic arc, the brain releases oxytocin - the ‘love’ neurochemical – which makes the audience more generous, compassionate and trustworthy.

Based on his research, Zak says ‘stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the [audiences] brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.’ He advises that ‘stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next’.

This means that even if your audience starts out as critical, by using a storytelling technique you can shift your audience’s mood into empathy, cooperation and support of your message.

Not everyone is born with the natural charisma or command of Barack Obama, or had the life-altering experience of Malala Yousafzai, but you do have the power to craft and share an authentically crafted story yourself; to affect the change you want to see in your organisation.

There are plenty of practical ways to begin crafting your story.

Knowing why you’re sharing a story is important. Approach it strategically which means getting clear on the objective, for e.g. to encourage conversation between people and leaders.

Decide your message because its core to your story, such as ‘your view is important to me, I want to hear what you’ve got to say’.

You can turn the message into a simple statement that will be repeated. Get your people behind the message and they will repeat this statement to others, creating a ‘butterfly’ effect.

Become focused on who your audience is, the language they use and what is important to them.

Be purposeful about the mood and impact you want to create.

Be authentic with your story.

It is a myth that vulnerability weakens your status. Authentic storytelling comes from personal experience and some of the best storytellers share a personal experience which helps their audience connect to them.

Just look at John Chambers on his dyslexia and Steve Jobs about the permanent separation from his mother as a baby and later his journey with pancreatic cancer. Take a tour through your past to choose some key events or people in your life that taught you something, helped you overcome a barrier or even transformed you. Its ok to mention an imperfection or setback, don’t be afraid to share these if they serve your story’s message.

Use characters in your story, like you would find in a novel and give your story a dramatic arc to build tension and keep people’s attention. The best stories take the audience into the character’s world.

You may have heard of the ‘hero’s journey’ as a story-telling technique. A hero goes on an adventure, hits a crisis, wins a victory and transforms as a result. Inspire your people to join you by making your audience the hero, not you (even though you still feature as a central character). This is fundamental.

Keep your story simple. Less is more. Only include detail if it adds to the dramatic tension.

Once you’ve got your story: practice, practice, practice.

Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has formed part of a story1. So dedicate yourself to the art of storytelling if you truly want to bring people with you.

 

1Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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