Using stories to anchor ideas and sway people to your way of thinking—for leaders.
Imagine this scene, three generations of a family sitting on a porch on a hot summer night sipping cold beverages and sharing stories about past adventures, struggles, and successes. This is how information was passed on from the leaders of a family to the future leaders before technology took over–and it worked. Fast forward to recent times and the best CEO’s also use stories to help others “see the big picture” and “put people in that picture”.
Maybe one of the best examples of a leader using stories to drive points home was Steve Jobs. He got people excited about technology in a way that never happened before. He dramatized his ideas (he walked on stage with a manilla folder and then pulled out the first MacBook Air to the delight of the crowd.) In his famous commencement speech at Stanford University, he told us three stories that held important life lessons.
The ability to get others to do what we want them to do willingly and with gusto is a leadership trait that is enhanced by storytelling. The reason this works so well is multi-faceted, but here are three key examples of why facts tell and stories sell.
1. As a leader you must be able to reach all different kinds of thinkers. You undoubtably have to lead the left brainers (engineers, accountants, administrators) and as well as the right brainers (marketing, sales, human resources). Each respond to different types of communication. The left side of the brain likes facts and figures while the right side responds best to visuals. What they BOTH can relate to is stories. (This is true for the whole brainers and the no brainers as well.) Everyone loves a good story.
2. For those (rare) people with a photographic memory you can simply show or tell them something and voila, they can recall it. For the other 99-percent of the people you can use a story as the anchor for an idea. Most people can recall a story and as a result can also remember the meaning or message attached to it. Telling a story to make a point or push an idea not only holds their attention and helps them relate, it also drills it deeper into their brain and attaches a label to it so they can recall it. Simply, they remember the story and the idea in their “Mind Palace” (a technique Sherlock Holmes made famous.)
3. Stories don’t have to be long to make an impression. Another skill that is crucial in today’s “beyond busy” world is to be able to get to the point quickly and cut though the clutter in people’s crowded brains. Short stories are what we need today. The ability to take something extremely complex and turn it into a catch phrase people will remember and rally around is harder than it sounds, but it can focus everyone on a common goal and get them to go the extra mile–even when they are up against the wall or facing a bigger and better foe.
For example: A few years ago the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the word “Devil” from their name and became the Rays. The result, they went from worst to first. Was it the name change or the brilliance of the manager, Joe Maddon? You be the judge. At the time the Rays had the smallest payroll, the worst record, the least amount of talent, and the lowest attendance of any team in their division (which included the Yankees, Red Sox, and Orioles.) So the manager announced in spring training that their mantra for the year was “9=8”. The players looked Maddon like he was crazy? So he explained that if the nine players on the field played as one they could get one of the eight playoff spots. The players now looked him like he was a genius.
One example of this principle put into practice happened when the Rays were playing at home. The closer came in to save the game in the top of the ninth inning and promptly gave up a game-tying home run. Carlos Pena, the first baseman walked across the field and up on the mound and said, “Don’t worry Papi, we’ve got your back. Just get the next three hitters and we’ll win the game for you.” In the bottom half of the ninth inning Pena hit a walk-off home run. The scrappy Rays pulled together as a team and despite the incredible odds not only got one of the eight playoff spots, they went to the World Series.