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Published: April 10, 2002

 
 

Once Upon a Time

When a meeting of the minds isn’t enough, try a meeting of the emotions: Tell a story.

Photography by Brad Wilson
A company president faced a familiar dispute between his design engineers and business managers: Should the lion’s share of engineering money go into new product design or into current product support? The design engineers were keen on getting cash to invent the next new thing. The business managers wanted money to support existing products. The president wrestled with how to tell the engineers he preferred channeling most money to current products. How could he effectively communicate that message?

It’s real-life business. And it’s just the kind of conundrum Annette Simmons tackles in her book The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling. Ms. Simmons argues that stories help managers deliver direction, information, and inspiration to their colleagues more powerfully than a pure logical argument. That’s a special power to have in a world where managing change and innovation are central to business success.

In the case of the company president, an appeal to reason would not have worked, Ms. Simmons says. Design engineers could have responded with charts and statistics advocating their side. Nor would issuing a directive have won the day. The designers, as sophisticated knowledge workers, would have found subtle ways to resist.

To get past this behavior, the president knew he had to play partly to his designers’ imaginations and emotions. So he told them the briefest of stories: “The early bird gets the worm, but something that is just as true — and people don’t talk about as much — is that the second mouse gets the cheese!”

“The first mouse gets his head squished,” he added. “I don’t want to be the first mouse. I want to be the second. I want our company to be smart about where we put our resources. Let someone else be first; second is where the money is.”

With an image of rodent roadkill, he got his point across in a colorful, amusing, right-brain way. As Ms. Simmons writes, influencing people through scientific analysis is a “push” strategy. It requires the speaker to convince the listener through cold, hard facts. That sets up an antagonistic conversation. Storytelling is a “pull” strategy, coaxing listeners — disarming them, even — into imagining outcomes toward which facts would not lead them.

Stories, which may embellish or emphasize a certain point of view, are central for making sense of the world around us. Authors like Annette Simmons note that people are raised on stories and see their lives as an ongoing story. As Robert Fulford, author of The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, says, “To discover we have no story is to acknowledge that our existence is meaningless, which we may find unbearable.”

That’s not to reject the value in facts, of course, but simply to recognize their limits in influencing people. Compared to facts, stories often better convey meaning, better create sense out of chaotic experience, better establish rapport among the speaker and listeners. Stories flick a switch in adults that can bring them back to a childlike open-mindedness — and make them less resistant to experimentation and change. Witness the success of Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. The messages in the book about the pain of change aren’t new. It’s how the story is told that keeps this simple book on the bestseller list four years after its publication.

Stephen Denning, author of The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations and the head of knowledge management at the World Bank, maintains that stories engage listeners as participants, rather than spectators. The story invites them to join the experience, and to grow from it. Mr. Denning argues that listeners co-create the story. They actually visualize themselves acting on the mental stage the storyteller has set up.

 
 
 
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