When I was young, I spend my entire life lost in stories. I read voraciously, and I watched everything I could on TV. In a world that I had very little control over, stories became the imaginary place that fed me the emotional connections that I needed.
To give you a sense of how strong this emotional bond was: I remember one day being at home on study leave, and taking a break from studying Weimar Germany (good times…) to watch an episode of Growing Pains. Unfortunately for me, it was this episode, the one where Carol’s boyfriend dies. I cried for hours. When I think about drink driving, this is still the first story that comes to mind. Such is the power of a good story.
(And yes, this is a pre-Friends Matthew Perry. Imagine my surprise when I found him five years later sitting in Central Perk…)
Stories are essential, because they frame the way we relate to things. We listen to stories, we tell ourselves stories, and stories become our primary sense-making tool, especially when things are confusing.
So it will not surprise you to learn that I believe in the power of stories. In fact I think stories have at least three superpowers: the power to show us, the power to move us, and ultimately the power to change us. In other words:
- Stories raise awareness
- Stories create an emotional connection and humanise issues
- Stories can lead to behaviour change
The most basic stories will at the very least create awareness. You read an article in a newspaper, or listen to a presentation and think – OK, I didn’t know this. Cool! And then you move on with your life, armed with a little more knowledge and awareness, but not much else.
Now awareness is pretty crucial, don’t get me wrong. None of the other steps work, if people don’t know about the issue in the first place. And sometimes awareness is all that’s needed – but in most cases, in you want impact, awareness is only the first step.
The next level is to create an emotional connection with a story. This normally happens when a story has a face, especially a face that I as an individual can relate to. This could be a human interest story on the news, or it could be a novel, or a TV show. Suddenly the story is a bit more than just information – suddenly I care, I am moved, I am touched. Possibly, I may start to evolve my thinking about the topic.
For me, emotional connection is the most important part of any story. If I can’t connect with what’s happening to the characters, I get bored. I stop listening. I disengage.
But if it works, it allows people to see something from a different perspective, because they are connecting emotionally with someone who has that perspective.
And that connection could be with anything! A piece of toast, in the mobile game I Am Bread. An alien, in ET. Or a bereaved and confused child, in René Clément’s 1952 masterpiece, Les Jeux Interdits. That is the beauty of stories, that you can use them to put yourself credibly in someone/thing else’s shoes (or crust).
In the most effective cases, if that connection is strong enough, stories can change behaviours. This can be good, and bad – propaganda works with stories too! But think about giving up smoking, or being more mindful of your speed when you drive, or changing the way you eat – or think about being more accepting of certain differences, being more open to different ways of life. And then reflect back to the moment the shift happened. Chances are it was linked to a story that touched you.
Let’s look at some examples here, starting with the original stories: the fairy tales.
Little Red Riding Hood is a story that exists in most cultures – sometimes the wolf is a tiger, sometimes the grandmother is an aunt, but the basic elements of the story remain. Look at it in terms of the three levels:
- Awareness: sometimes people who look like a nice grandmother can be a wolf who wants to eat you
- Emotional connection: this little girl is going to her grandmother just like me last Sunday!
- Behaviour change: Hmm – I’ll be more careful in the future about what information I may share with strangers, even ones that look very nice.
Or in Charles Perrault’s words:
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!
OK, so this one is pretty obvious and straight forward. Let us examine a slightly different way of telling a story: Princess Diana shaking an AIDS patient’s hand, in 1987, without wearing gloves. This seems quite banal now but at the time was a turning point in people’s perception of AIDS patients. What do we have here?
- Awareness: it is not dangerous to shake an AIDS patient’s hand
- Emotional connection – well this was Princess Diana, the Princess of the People – of course there was an emotional connection
- Behaviour change: I may think differently about my behaviour towards people suffering from AIDS from now on
As John O’Reilly, a nurse on the ward at the time of the visit, told the BBC’s Witness 30 years later:
“If a royal was allowed to go in and shake a patient’s hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same. That really educated people.”
Sometimes, the emotional connection comes before the awareness. That’s often when the power of storytelling is most obvious. That’s true of movies such as The Crying Game for instance, but it’s also beautifully demonstrated in this French social media campaign.
Here the viewer or follower created a real emotional connection with Louise, and so when the messaging came it has a devastating impact. The young person who mentioned this campaign to me told me it had made her rethink completely how she saw casual drinking.
Stories are everywhere, and they underpin everything. Now think – how can this help you? Are you harnessing the power of storytelling?
Here are some things I hear in my coaching session:
- I work harder than everybody here, but no-one notices
- I would like to evolve my role, but I don’t know how to engage with my boss
- One of my team members is not pulling their weight
Let’s think about these in terms of story levels. The first one is obvious: it starts with awareness! You need to let people know that you work hard. Otherwise how are they supposed to notice? But then think about evolving this to the next level: how do you frame the narrative that you work hard in the way that is most likely to engage your boss and colleagues emotionally? Complaining is unlikely to work. What’s the story here? And then what about behaviour change? What would you like your colleagues and boss to do in response to your story? Praise you? Give you a promotion? Or would you like your workload to decrease? Think about the behaviour you are trying to elicit in your audience, and then frame your approach with this in mind.
Engaging with your boss is also about understanding your audience, and framing your approach in a way that will make sense to them. What is the story here? How is this going to help your boss? Or if it won’t help, how can you pre-empt and mitigate problems? How will you communicate this in a way that’s emotionally engaging?
And then think about talking to someone who works for you about their behaviour. That’s a conversation most of us would dread. Let’s think about the narrative that’s going into that person’s head. Let’s ask them for their story. And let’s refine the way we approach them based on that.
Most of us understand intuitively that stories are fun and interesting. Yet we go to meetings, interviews, presentations and we start listing facts. This is what we have been told to do at school.
Facts should be enough, of course. But they never are. Very few people change their minds when faced with convincing data. Our brains are incredibly skilled at ignoring data! Sure, data may say that vaccination is safe, that big cars kill the planet, that soda is bad for you… but one article in a newspaper about that extremely rare side effect, a couple of James Bond movies with a bunch of SUVs, a cute Coke advert… all of this is going to have more impact on our behaviour than rows and rows of numbers.
Stories are powerful. In fact, stories run the world. So… what’s your story?