To really unlock the power of storytelling, you need to Be Specific with the stories that you tell.
Last week I was working with a group of bank managers in one of our Storytelling for Leaders programs.
We were showing them how the Influence Story pattern can be used to help overcome entrenched positions and tackle anti-stories. One of the challenges the group faced was getting their staff to engage more deeply with customers – to give the best customer experience and match customer needs with bank products. Many staff saw this as ‘selling’ and didn’t do it.
We were helping the bank managers find examples that might invite their staff to re-think their position on ‘selling’.
One of the participants excitedly told a story…”Imagine one of our customers is a husband with a wife and three kids. We’ve organised his mortgage and all is good. A few months later his wife comes in and says she has to terminate the mortgage. It turns out the husband had died and the wife now couldn’t afford the repayments because they didn’t have any insurance. Imagine if you had organised that mortgage and had failed to talk with them to ensure all the insurances were in place…just because you didn’t want to be ‘selling’ to them. You would have let that family down badly.”
The other participants were impressed. “Good story” they said. “We can use that”.
I then asked the lady who’d told the story if she had had an experience like that. Her reply was “yes, only a few months ago. It was devastating.” So I asked her to tell us what happened, rather than telling us about the experience in general terms. She started “It was only three months ago…Dave was a bricklayer. He came in with his wife and three kids to sign the mortgage papers. They were so happy.” She went on to describe how the wife had come into the back to close the mortgage and how she felt when she realised she had let the family down, how the wife was crying…
This time the other participants were deeply moved. As was I. The first telling was not specific and the result was ‘that’s interesting and useful’. The second telling was very specific and the result was ‘Wow! That’s powerful.’
This little experience highlights one of the most common barriers that prevent people from tapping into the natural power of storytelling. Instead of being specific, we generalise. We don’t mention names, we don’t say when the event happened. Our stories become more general and more abstract and lose their impact. That’s why we advocate the Spotting Stories framework that Shawn blogged about recently.
It might seem paradoxical, but much of the power of a story comes from its specificity.
As Marshall Ganz wrote in 2007: “Stories are specific – they evoke a very particular time, place, setting, mood, color, sound, texture, taste. The more you can communicate this specificity, the more power your story will have to engage others. … it is the specificity of the experience that can give us access to the universal sentiment or insight they contain.”
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About Mark Schenk
Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:
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