Storytelling to make messages stick

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 13, 2011
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

I’m reading an advance copy of Andrew O’Keeffe’s new book ‘Hardwired Humans: Successful Leadership Using Human Instincts’. I am looking forward to meeting Dr Jane Goodall when she launches the book on June 6.

One of the human instincts, ‘emotion before reason’ tells us that emotions play a huge role in our decision making. We jump to conclusions and the conclusions we jump to are normally negative. This has lots of implications in the workplace for communication and leadership. Andrew provides an example of this.

A small business is owned by a husband and wife and employs eight workers. One Monday morning just after 9am the couple made an announcement: ‘Could everyone please stop work. We have some important news.’ They asked the employees to immediately join them in the kitchen at the round table they use for lunch and tea breaks. The workers stopped what they were doing and filed into the kitchen with puzzled looks on their faces. Such an impromptu staff meeting this early on a Monday was unusual. When everyone had gathered the husband began. ‘Thanks everyone. We have some important news.’ He paused to let his wife continue. People tensed.

So, what do you think is going to happen?

‘We’ve had a terrific quarter financially,’ she said with a big smile, ‘and we want to share our success with you!’ The husband waived eight envelopes. ‘These are for you,’ he said, ‘one each. Inside your envelope is five hundred dollars! Now, you can take your envelope, but on one condition-that you leave work right now, spend your money today and come back at 3 o’clock and show the rest of us what you bought.’

Almost invariably people assume the worst when they are reading or hearing this story. The business is about to fold, or the couple are separating are common reactions. We don’t remain in a neutral state waiting for the story to unfold and we normally assume the worst. Humans are hardwired to screen for pain and danger first.

So, be leaders need to be aware that people are primarily emotional, not the rational beings we assume them to be in a work context. They will always jump to conclusions and that these conclusions will often be negative. Effective leaders are acutely aware of the primacy of emotions as they seek to relate to and influence others.

I have written this blog post to demonstrate one of the key story patterns we advocate in helping get your message across clearly and helping it stick. We use the acronym PERP: Point, Example, Reason, Point. In this post, para 2 is the Point, paras 3,4 and 5 are the example that illustrate the point, para 6 provides the Reason (the logic, rationale, evidence) and para 7 reiterates and expands upon the Point.

Give this method a try when you are next faced with getting your message across. We’d love to hear back from you on how it goes.

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