Why six stories? Why not four, or fifteen or the magic seven? All I can say is that my work began with groups. How to bring groups together, sustain values, promote mutual respect, and increase productivity. Anything more than these six stories was a duplication, anything less was incomplete. No one was more surprised than I was to realize they encompass the heart of all communication. Click on one of the types of stories below to learn more.
What qualities earn you the right to influence this person? Tell of a time/place/event that provides evidence that you have these qualities. Reveal who you are, as a person. Do you have kids? What were you like as a kid? What did your parents teach you? What did you learn in your first job? Get personal. People need to know who you are before they can trust you.
Your first step developing your ”Who I Am”” story is to answer the questions: Who are you? What makes you special? What earns you the right to influence? Everyone has gifts. What are yours? Are you compassionate, reliable, honest, and diplomatic (not usually the same person)? What quality do you have that earns you the right to influence others? Once you have listed two or three of your best qualities, go find a story from one of the four buckets.
When you have several “Who I Am” stories that are three minutes or less you can use them at the beginning of any presentation – even a presentation to people who know you. Strangers are wary by nature but co-workers/clients/peers also may secretly believe a story about you that is not very flattering. Anytime you suspect someone has secret suspicions about your motivations or agenda, set them straight early with a “who I am” story. This allows them to come to their own conclusion: “Hey, this is a good person. I’ll listen.”
If you wish to influence, regardless of your objective, you are asking for a person’s time, money, or resources. We were taught in “Sales 101” that answering the WIIFM –”What’s In It for ME?”– should be first. And yes, people certainly need to know what’s in it for them. However people don’t really relax and listen until they are satisfied that they know what’s in it for YOU.
If your audience is running a story that you want their cooperation only to meet your needs, they immediately discredit your “facts” as biased. Keep it short, but explain the big picture about why you are investing your time with them on this matter.
Finding a story can be hard, because the rush of daily life makes us forget. We wonder, ‘Why did I do this to myself?” So, carve out enough time to relax a minute and look out a window. Think about the last time someone pulled you aside to say “thank you.” Think about why you went the extra mile and that is a story. When did you choose this job, what was going on and why did you choose it? That is a story. List some of the reasons you do what you do. Tell this person what you get out of it besides money – or if it is just about the money own it and show how they benefit as well. Then look in any of the four buckets for a story.
Use a “why I am here” story in a presentation or a conversation when you are asking for something big. Be transparent because if you tell a “why I’m here” story that isn’t true, it probably will do more damage than good. It may be tempting to tell a story of motivations you aspire to – but dig deeper and you will find genuine motivations that better connect with all the other imperfect people in the room.
People abhor “users.” In social psychology experiments, a freeloader (someone getting more than their “fair share”) is so unpopular a group will go to extra expense to place penalties on “users.” Fair means different things to different people and without a “Why I am here” story you never know who might think you are just in it for yourself. (You may want to read the article “Building Trust Seven Stories High”) Whenever you enter a culture of “have nots,” and you are one of the “haves” you will need to tell several “why I am here” stories. This earns you the chance to prove your stories are true by your actions.
An exciting future story reframes present difficulties as “worth it.” Big projects and new challenges can be difficult and frustrating particularly for people who weren’t in on the decision-making process. Without a vision, meaningless frustrations suck the life energy out of a group. With an engaging vision huge obstacles shrink to small irritants on the path to a worthwhile goal. (Note: Vision stories that promise more than they deliver do more damage than good. So be careful.)
A lot of people mess up vision stories by using numbers and dates. Numbers and dates are the language of goals and objectives. A vision story is metaphorical. It is very specific and uses sensory detail in order to be universal in emotional appeal (yeah, I know that is a paradox). Martin Luther King’s paraphrase of Amos 5:24 “… and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ “ Now THAT is a vision. Emotions come from sensory detail, not numbers or dates. For vision stories we use the four buckets a little differently:
- A time you prevailed: Think of a similar situation when you surmounted similar obstacles.
- A time you gave up: When did you let an opportunity pass?
- A mentor’s or a historical allegory of perseverance: Every problem under the sun, has been faced before by someone else prevailed. Profile a biography, company, political movement, or historical event and make it yours. This kind of story is useful as a vision and may deliver creative ideas for new strategies.
- A book or movie about achieving a vision: Any movie with a team or hero overcoming “insurmountable” obstacles work. Pull your story from two to three scenes fully described. I don’t know anything about copyright laws, but video nights with popcorn might be fun. Think about movies where sports teams came from behind or the underdog wins…whatever fits.
Beginning a start-up requires a powerful vision story. The vision can be woven into daily life with reminders: nicknames, jargon, regular events, and annual awards. If you avoid corny, and keep it fun – the vision stays meaningful and relevant.
Any group with low morale needs a vision story accompanied with visible action that proves it is not just talk. Take care of the basics before you do any silly stuff. Once the basics of walking your talk are covered you can weave a book or movie in with fun activities. For instance if you used the movie “Cars” you might hold car races (with small remote control cars) every Friday afternoon for the best parking space and only the three top performers, best rated, whatever, get to race.
Values are subjective. Integrity may mean doing what your boss tells you to do, or saying no even if it costs your job. This is why the only way to communicate a value is by example (best), or with a story (2nd best). The word “integrity” is abstract and tossed around so much people pretend they have communicated. Nothing is communicated if no one knows what you mean when you say “integrity.” If you want to encourage or teach a value a story provides a “demonstration” by showing in the theatre of your listener’s mind what that value means, behaviorally.
These stories can feel forced–but the payoff is worth the effort. It has become a status symbol to be cynical so by all means don’t damage your cool reputation, but pretend no one is looking and think about the core values that drive your decision making. Dedication? Compassion?
It takes discipline to consciously tell stories that build values like trust, loyalty, generosity, and excellence into our lives. It also requires a support system. You need someone to listen to your stories of disappointment so you can process those feelings and move past them. Emotions buried alive don’t die; they just hijack your communication the next time you run across a good listener or a captive audience.
Hypothetical situations sound hypocritical and preachy. Be specific.
We are designed to give extra attention to caution stories of broken promises, exploitation, and betrayal so we can stay safe and avoid repeating the same mistakes. Unfortunately with so little time to think these days, warning stories usurp positive value-in-action stories. If you want to build certain values in your organizations you need to make time for intentionally positive value-in-action stories. Otherwise the war stories win and the people around you lean towards feeling cynical, sarcastic and apathetic.
If your organization has core values, you need a story for each value to roll out at every opportunity you find. If you have enough authority and trust, you can begin to start staff meetings with core value-in-action story reports – everyone brings a story to illustrate the value emphasized for this week/month. (Benjamin Franklin worked on one virtue each week, while grading himself on all thirteen.)
Certain lessons are best learned from experience— but much of the time you can’t manufacture an experience for someone. When the experience of failure is too expensive or disastrous to endure – story can simulate an experience so a learner can vicariously live the moments before, during, and after an event in the theater of his or her own mind.
Other lessons, like patience are rarely learned once and for all.We have to learn these lessons again and again on a regular basis. And posters on the wall don’t cut it. If someone is being impatient, telling them to “be more patient” is not going to get good results. Better to tell a story of patience in a pace and with timing that demonstrates its rewards. Chances are a story will work better than advice. Discipline, humility, respect, cleaning up…these skills need role models and stories to help learners develop the habits you seek.
At its best, a “teaching story” transports your listener into an experience that lets him or her see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and feel a real situation in all its ambiguity, time pressures and real life issues. It imprints into the listeners mind a “never do this” or “this is how it is done” memory that can equal a true experience. A teaching story is a no-risk demonstration–a trial run by imagination.
Identify a few basic tasks you would like to see improved. Delete anyone you have a bad relationship with. Go back to Who I am, Why I am here, develop a good relationship and then worry about correcting their mistakes.
Consider the deliverables of a good job and move back upstream to consider what they must actually do to deliver excellent results. Consider ambiguous situations where you imagine that staff might need to come up with creative solutions. One idea is to simply list your top five pet peeves.
Timing is important with teaching stories. By definition, teaching methods should create good performance and avoid things like hurt feelings, conflicts, wasted time or outright disasters. A good time to tell a teaching story is before anything has gone wrong. Training classes should be filled with teaching stories.
People like to stay safe. Many times they have already made up their mind, with specific objections to the ideas you bring. They stop you before your presentation and tell you, “We talked about this at dinner last night and we don’t like it,” but they might be thinking it. It doesn’t matter that they made their decision on a distorted version of the facts. They may just like the idea that today’s meeting will be short and they get to go home early because everyone has already dismissed your idea.
It is a trust-building surprise for you to give voice to their secret suspicions in a story that first validates and then dispels these objections without sounding defensive. It gets their attention that you know more than they thought you did…and earns you the benefit of the doubt that you may know other things they don’t know.
Humans hunger for validation. The first rule of an “I Know What You Are Thinking” story is that you frame their objective as completely rational and understandable. It doesn’t cost you a thing.
Most of the time, it doesn’t even require research. In most circumstances you already know what “secret” objections your listeners’ hold against your point of view. New ideas naturally activate contrary forces, if only from the inertia of the status quo.
The magic of “I know what you are thinking” stories is like any magic–it requires some preparation, a deeper understanding of how human attention operates, and practice. First you validate and then you contrast the objection by reframing it. (Ex: In a black community I may say, “You know how white people are – it’s all about us. Well that’s still true but I’ve been trained up, working in other communities to see ways that I used to show disrespect, but I’m still not there so I’ll will falter and I’ll need your help. Will you help me?)
It might help to pretend to be group you seek to influence and complete the sentence on their behalf “What I hate about this is….” That should show you the objections you need to overcome.
It is much easier to overcome an objection before it hardens into a position. An “I Know What You Are Thinking” story overcomes objections when they are still soft–merely a “sneaking suspicion.” You don’t have to read minds. Unspoken objections are easy to anticipate, particularly if you research your audience’s point of view. The minute you smell the strong odor of an objection, you may want to use an “I Know What You Are Thinking” story.