This review was first published in the July 6 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
I didn’t actually write the best speech I ever wrote.
I merely transcribed a conversation with an interim president who was in a reflective mood. He needed help in writing a convocation speech for 5,000 graduating students and their families.
The president could’ve played it safe with a disposable speech. He could’ve strung together some well-worn quotes (cue Margaret Mead and Dr. Suess). He could’ve served up the usual commandments for freshly minted grads (thou shalt work hard and go forth to change thy world). And he could’ve offered up reassurances that Baby Boomers will at some point retire and leave lots of jobs to be filled.
The president instead chose to be bold and make it personal. He wanted to talk about the morning he dropped out of high school and his dad gave him a week to get a job or get out of the house. He talked about starting out in a mailroom and getting a little too comfortable in the job until a company executive challenged him to aim higher.
It was a personal story that made for a powerful speech delivered in under 10 minutes. In sharing his story, the president connected with his audience at an emotional level and won them over with his humility. Grads walked across the stage and thanked the president for his sharing his story.
All of us are hungry and hardwired for good stories. Our world really doesn’t need another PowerPoint presentation or a report stuffed with facts, stats and charts that most of us will never read.
“The science is in,” says Annette Simmons, author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins and president of a consulting firm that helps organizations tell stories. “The brain thinks in stories. Technology dumps so much information on us; we now need a conscious process to translate that information back into the human brain’s inborn format for understanding the world: into story.”
The best stories put emotional and personal connections front and centre, says Simmons. “Unless you bring a beating heart to your message, it is dead. But when you tell your own heartfelt stories about what is meaningful in your life and work, you get the hang of finding stories that frame life and work in emotionally meaningful ways for your audience.”
Simmons identifies six kinds of stories that can connect you with your audience and influence what they think and do:
- Who I am stories that reveal who you are as a person. This is the most important story you’ll ever tell, says Simmons. “Your ability to influence people is directly related to what others know or believe about who you are.”
- Why I am here stories that talk about your purpose beyond a paycheque. Your audience wants to know what’s in it for you ahead of what’s in it for them. “Only a strong connection to your positive intent can keep suspicion from clouding your message or discrediting your data.”
- Teaching stories, with lessons learned from personal experience. Talk about the times you shined and fell short. “You can tell someone to be patient, but it’s rarely helpful. It is better to tell a story that creates a shared experience of patience along with the rewards of patience. A three-minute story about patience may be short and punchy, but it will change behavior much better than advice.”
- Vision stories that explain why the future will be worth the headaches and hassles we’re going through today. “A good vision story makes your promise for future payoffs tangible enough to feel realistic,” says Simmons. “Overwhelming obstacles shrink to bearable frustrations that are achievable and worth the effort.”
- Value in action stories that illustrate what a value means behaviorally. You can tell staff that respect is a core value in your organization. Or you can tell stories about staff who treat others with respect. If it’s a real value and not just words on a poster, these stories will be easy to find.
Still not sold on sharing a personal story? Consider this. “Facts are no match for emotions,” says Simmons. “When you realize that experiences and emotions trump abstractions such as statistics and data, you realize that you are never not telling a story.”
Simmons shows how to tell better stories, whether you’re speaking to a graduating class, rolling out a new business model at work or preparing for a billion dollar investment in light rail transit.
“Stories are very powerful tools. When you activate new stories, you transport people to new points of view and change meaning and behavior, and in that way, you change the future.”