A woman from the audience followed me into the hallway. “I think we’re married to the same man,” she said. Successfully fighting the urge to fire off the snappy reply, “Could be. I travel a lot,” I simply smiled back. I’d heard this before.
I’m introduced as a change-management expert – married to a man who refuses to change anything. So, during my speech, I tell humorous stories about the resistance my husband puts up – and how I learned, from managers I’d interviewed, different ways to handle his protests.
After every speech, audience members come up to me to comment on my husband. Many people recognize their co-workers or loved ones (or themselves!) in him, and some (like the woman who’s own spouse’s behavior so resembled mine) jokingly commiserate with me. The thing I find most intriguing about this phenomenon is that in my twenty years of professional speaking, no one has ever approached me after a program to say they most appreciated my fifth point. That’s because they don’t remember what my fifth point was. But they do remember my husband and the lessons about handling change resistance that they learned through my stories.
As a communicator, stories can be your most potent allies.
Social scientists note that there are two different modes of cognition: the paradigmatic mode and the narrative mode. The former is rooted in rational analysis; the latter is represented in fairy tales, myth, legends, metaphors, and good stories. Good stories are more powerful than plain facts!
That is not to reject the value in facts, of course, but simply to recognize their limits in influencing people. Stories supplement analysis. Facts are neutral. People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. Facts aren’t influential until they mean something to someone. Stories give facts meaning.
Here is the difference: Trying to influence people through scientific analysis is a “push” strategy. It requires the speaker to convince the listener through cold, factual evidence. Storytelling is a “pull” strategy, in which the listener is invited to join the experience a participant, and to imagine herself acting on the mental stage the storyteller creates. Stories resonate with adults in ways that can bring them back to a childlike open-mindedness – and make them less resistant to experimentation and change.
Compared to facts, stories are better for building community, capturing the imagination, and exerting influence. Stories about the past help employees understand the rich heritage of an organization, stories about early adopters offer successful examples of dealing with change, personal stories are powerful leadership tools for building trust, humorous stories can ease tension and, if you interview key staff, stories can capture their wisdom.
Stories can address universal human themes
Michael LeBoeuf, author of How to Win Customers and Keep Them for Life, illustrates the power of making people feel important with the following story:
Jane, recently married, was having lunch with a friend, explaining why she married Bill instead of Bob.
“Bob is Mr. Everything,” Jane said. “He’s intelligent, clever and has a very successful career. In fact, when I was with Bob, I felt like he was the most wonderful person in the world.”
“Then why did you marry Bill?” her friend asked. Jane replied, “Because when I’m with Bill, I feel like I’m the most wonderful person in the world.”
Stories can show how to approach your work
I once asked Sanjiv Sidhu, the CEO of i2 Technologies, what kind of attitudes he encouraged in his work force. Although his is a high-tech company, he told me a story about cleaning houses. It’s the same story he tells employees.
“Most people would think that cleaning houses for a living was a pretty boring job. But I believe that if you had the right attitude, cleaning houses could be intellectually stimulating. Let’s say it takes you four hours to clean a house, and you’re doing three houses a day, six days a week. That’s 72 hours of really boring work and a pretty sure recipe for burnout somewhere down the line. But if you redefined the job, said to yourself that you were going to do each house in two hours, there’d be an innovative component in the work suddenly. You’d need to do a study that asked, for example: ‘Am I going to vacuum the whole house first and then go back and polish the furniture, or am I going to do everything in one room before moving on to the next?’ And if you added to that goal the goal of being the best house-cleaner ever, then you really would be stretching your mind, the job wouldn’t feel boring anymore and you probably wouldn’t burn out because your own innovative thinking would keep you interested.
But then suppose you shifted gears again and said, ‘Okay, now I’m going to clean each house in ten minutes!’ That’s where the real fun would begin for someone like me because I’d know I couldn’t hit that target by merely tinkering with spatial tasking. I’d have to start thinking about new kinds of house-cleaning equipment–or maybe even new kinds of houses that cleaned themselves. That’s the kind of thinking we’re encouraging in our employees all of the time.”
Stories can make values come alive
Nordstrom is one organization that does a remarkable job of using anecdotes about its sales force to communicate its value of impeccable customer service. There is, for example, the often-repeated tale about the saleswoman who took her lunch hour to drive from downtown Seattle to the airport to make sure that her customer received his new business suit. The customer had purchased the suit that morning to wear at a meeting in another city the next day — and then discovered the garment needed alterations. The Nordstrom saleswoman had promised to have the suite altered and delivered to him before he left town. She kept her promise.
Stories can become the symbol of change
There is a story I tell in the book, “This Isn’t the Company I Joined” – How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down: Buckman Laboratories has been in the specialty chemical business since 1945. Under the leadership of Robert H. (Bob) Buckman, it also became a world-class, knowledge-sharing organization. Bob would tell you that converting a command-and-control organization into a networked one was not without its challenges and setbacks. Still, by 1994, Buckman Labs had jumped into full-bore knowledge sharing: new software and connectivity had been installed, most of the associates were equipped with laptops, and online Forums were up and running. To honor and reward the top 150 people from around the world who had done the best job of sharing knowledge with the new technologies, a “Fourth Wave Meeting” was held in Scottsdale, Arizona. The meeting was three days of fun, celebration and work – specifically, critical discussions about business trends and strategies. It was also the setting for the following story:
Through the entire conference, a man wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals sat at the back of the room, chronicling the meeting on his laptop and sending live messages onto the Forum for the rest of the company to read. His name was Mark Koskiniemi. About midway through the meeting, one of the organizers (a manager) approached Mark and asked him to stop sending out notes on the meeting. Mark refused by saying he didn’t feel that was appropriate. When the organizer suggested that the request to cease came from the top, Mark countered by saying he’d appreciate hearing it personally.
A few minutes later, a break was called, and Mark found himself face-to-face with Bob Buckman. Here is how Mark recalls the conversation:
Mark: Hello, sir.
Bob: Mark, I understand that you have been posting notes from the meeting on the Forum. I have to say that I have not read them, but are you sure that is such a good idea?
Mark: Do you trust me?
Bob broke into a big smile, nodded slightly, and nothing further was said about Mark’s continued reporting of the events.
As Mark later said: “If knowledge sharing is built on trust, then to me this moment over any other demonstrated that Bob Buckman really trusted the associates of Buckman Laboratories to take the company forward.”
There were two results from Koskiniemi’s reporting:
1. In all, he sent more than 50 Forum or e-mail messages related to the reports coming from the meeting.
2. Koskiniemi (who is now head of Buckman’s operation in Australia and New Zealand) told others the story – and it came to symbolize the desired culture change.